Of Haunted Houses and Killer Sharks
August Excitement from the Aisle Seat
By Andy Dursin
Thankfully, the supernatural has all of a sudden become a major player
in this summer's movies. Horror fare like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and THE
HAUNTING each bring something different to the table in genre terms, and
this week we get another thriller, THE SIXTH SENSE -- a Bruce Willis vehicle
that has been receiving some surprisingly positive word-of-mouth (and where
the heck did this film come from? Nobody had even heard of it until a month
ago). While holdovers THE 13TH WARRIOR and THE ASTRONAUT'S WIFE will be
screened on August 27th (over a year past their original release dates),
it seems that the genre ain't finished yet, and with SLEEPY HOLLOW and
END OF DAYS on target for the end of the year, it seems clear that Hollywood
will continue to churn out some chillers before 1999 draws to a close.
(After the summer we've had thus far, I'd even go for another Jennifer
Love Hewitt slasherfest. Sigh.)
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (***): It's a shame that radio dramas are no
longer a part of our entertainment culture, since this intriguing and puzzling
supernatural experiment in low-budget filmmaking probably would have been
most at home sans any visuals, much less hand-held cameras and rough black-and-white
Deemed as this year's hot indie property after wildly successful screenings
at festivals around the nation, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT arrives in national
release as a well-conceived, documentary-told tale of mounting paranoia
that can be described in just a few simple sentences. Three filmmaking
students set out to the rural woods of Maryland to study the tale of a
local legend, only to find themselves lost in the forest with only each
other to rely on. The problems, in addition to each character's own behavioral
quirks, come only when the sun goes down--and some startling noises can
be heard outside their tent, off in the distance of the foreboding woods.
Little is seen in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, and virtually nothing is
explained. The ending is satisfyingly ambiguous but also leaves you somewhat
empty, as if the picture's only goal was to play with the audience--not
provide viewers with a developed backstory or so much as a hint of a resolution
or explanation to the mysterious goings-on. It's frustrating since, without
that, the movie never becomes a fully integrated dramatic experience, but
it still maintains an edgy level of curiosity in the viewer for what it
The filmmakers used extreme methods to elicit a level of believable
hysteria in the cast, and the ensuing "performances" are realistic
for the most part, though I tired of Heather Donahue's incessant whining
and found a few of the confrontations between the characters a tad redundant
(you would think, after being spooked by noises at night, that the group
would simply take to the hills and run for it, not mope around and elaborate
upon what's going wrong). Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick's script--which
they also directed and edited--is not freed from some of the regulation
conventions of the horror genre, either, as all three protagonists exhibit
more than their share of idiotic behavior throughout (if Donahue is such
an expert hiker, why doesn't she ever think of marking their location on
trees or other landmarks after they get lost? And if you went into a haunted
house, would you ever separate from your companion?).
All of this is forgivable, however, since Sanchez and Myrick have tapped
into a less-is-more approach with a gritty realism that's striking in relation
to all of the recent genre plunders we've received in the wake of SCREAM.
The best parts, of course, are when the lights go down and we sit in silence,
listening -- with the characters -- for whatever lurks in the woods to
show itself. In a way, I think this film may work better on video, where
the intimate nature of the story and the crude technical footage will be
less of a distraction, and not having an audience full of fellow viewers
will make one feel even more uncomfortable.
Like all sleepers that come associated with a huge promotional blitz,
the film isn't quite as good as the reviews would have you believe, though
this is primarily the fault of over-saturation on the media's part. You
couldn't read a film magazine or turn on the Sci-Fi Channel this summer
without hearing about "that little movie that's scarier than any studio
thriller," and a lot of critics have jumped on the movie's bandwagon,
bestowing incredible praise for the film that seems to have been as much
a product of the film's underdog production story (nameless actors, next-to-nothing
budget, no-name filmmakers) as the movie itself. After all the hype, some
viewers are bound to be disappointed (one audience member yelled out, "it
sucked! Don't see it!" to the line waiting for the next show), but
most are sure to be enthralled by the film anyhow. It is not a classic,
but there is something haunting about the film that makes it, at the very
least, an intriguing and often successful experiment in utilizing an audience's
own imagination instead of explicitly showing them everything that's happening.
That leads us into the inevitable sequel, which has been bandied about
by the filmmakers and Artisan Entertainment over the last few weeks. For
once, I wouldn't mind seeing one. You wouldn't want to see Sanchez and
Myrick repeat themselves by simply producing a bigger-budgeted remake of
this picture, but seeing a further investigation--and a cinematic exploration--of
the material from these filmmakers in a more technically proficient and
fully-developed, cinematic narrative form would be interesting to see.
Even on a bigger, perhaps even "mainstream" genre canvas, I think
there's a good chance that THE BLAIR WITCH would chill again. (87 mins,
THE HAUNTING (**1/2): Critics seemed to be shocked that
this remake of Robert Wise's 1963 chiller (and Shirley Jackson's novel
"The Haunting of Hill House") represents a conscious lightening
of its source material, but what did they expect in a PG-13 rated haunted
house movie from Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks studio? It's bubblegum,
ersatz-horror all the way, but at least it has been given a classy production
mounting thanks to a top-flight artistic team.
Lili Taylor gives the film's best performance as a sheltered and emotionally
scarred young woman who is recruited by Liam Neeson to undergo a "sleep
disorder study" (really a front for an experiment in observing human
paranoia) in a gothic mansion in western Massachusetts. Joining Taylor
are Catherine Zeta-Jones and Owen Wilson, who creep around the ghostly
house while Neeson looks on, wondering if the apparitions that become visible
to Taylor are indeed a product of her imagination--or something else lurking
in the house.
Movies like the original HAUNTING and Jack Clayton's supreme supernatural
classic THE INNOCENTS effectively played off their protagonist's mounting
fear by raising questions about their sanity (or lack thereof). In this
HAUNTING, the more subtle approach of those pictures is eschewed in favor
of explicit visual effects and a point-of-view that never questions Taylor's
behavior, even though Neeson isn't quite sure that she's mentally all there.
It's just one discrepancy in David Self's screenplay, which is nevertheless
given a superb visual presentation in director Jan DeBont's glossy production.
Beautifully designed (by Eugenio Zanetti of RESTORATION) and photographed
(kudos to Karl Walter Lindenlaub of STARGATE and GODZILLA), THE HAUNTING
provides low-rent scares in a grade-A studio setting. Say what you will
about the lack of a compelling story, but the film's $80 million budget
is certainly evident on-screen in its depiction of Hill House, with its
towering corridors, gothic designs, pockets of spider webs and paintings
It's a shame, then, that the movie never really comes to life and produces
the kind of spine-tingling moments one expects from this material. The
film has a difficult time generating true chills, with the biggest scare
coming from a skeleton that briefly comes to life, and a mural of child
sculptures whose expressions change from one cut to another (evidence that,
yes, some shocks CAN be generated without CGI). In place of the original's
subliminal horrors are those computer-generated special effects, some of
which are impressive but none of which come close to evoking the juvenile
frights of the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World. The climactic showdown
between Taylor and the house's "host" actually recalls the Grim
Reaper design in Peter Jackson's turkey THE FRIGHTENERS, and that's likely
not the kind of cinematic comparison DeBont and company were aiming for
Spielberg's influence, however, can be felt throughout. In many ways,
THE HAUNTING plays like POLTERGEIST by way of THE GOONIES--there are corridors
and gadgets, hidden rooms and a rationale for the Poltergeist phenomena
that culminates in an ending more uplifting than its predecessor. Indeed,
several reports in the NY Post this past week that Spielberg extensively
reshot much of the film bear an eerie resemblance to the whole "did
Tobe Hooper direct POLTERGEIST?" fiasco from 1982, and there is ample
evidence on-hand that tampering was done to the picture's ending (not to
mention Lili Taylor's hair changing lengths in a couple of spots, which
could be continuity glitches or clear evidence of re-shot material). If
that wasn't enough, Jerry Goldsmith's by-the-numbers score doesn't do anything
other than routinely comment on the action with low-register, brooding
strings and lilting, "ghostly" moments that make you feel as
if poor little Carol Ann is still lost in the netherworld (the sound effects
also bear more than a passing resemblance to POLTERGEIST).
The cast tries hard, but other than Taylor (billed fourth despite having
the lead role!), are given little to do. Neeson looks more lost here than
he did in THE PHANTOM MENACE, while Zeta-Jones's toughest job is finding
a rationale for changing her wardrobe during the course of the preceding.
Owen Wilson's surfer dude might have worked better as comic relief if his
character resembled Jeff Spicoli from FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, but
the movie just misses that kind of inspiration. Predictably, none of them
are able to steer clear of some unintentionally funny dialogue, most of
which occurs near the picture's climax. (My favorite is Neeson, having
just witnessed a haunted house crumbling down and statues coming to life
around him, bark out, "what does he think this is? A game?!",
as if ghosts do everything EXCEPT fool with their houseguests).
DeBont's pacing is efficient, though, and I admit that I generally enjoyed
looking at the movie--it's worth it for its production design alone. Thanks
to the sets, THE HAUNTING is enough to warrant a mild recommendation for
genre fanatics, even if the only members of the audience who'll be truly
scared by it will be fully grown only by the next time that this story
is remade again. (PG-13, 108 mins).
DEEP BLUE SEA (***): Let's admit it. For those of us who
routinely enjoy action-packed summer-time blockbusters, this has been the
weakest summer of the decade'a whimpering, pathetic way to end the Millennium.
Finally, after Kubrick's last gasp, two Julia Roberts vehicles, leering
teen comedies, and minor fare that will be more at home on video than the
big screen, we get Renny Harlin's comeback film, DEEP BLUE SEA, and for
what it is, it's solid, damned exciting entertainment.
Not the kind of movie you see for character development or introspective
dialogue, DEEP BLUE SEA--a combination of THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, JURASSIC
PARK and JAWS--is a skillfully crafted and exciting thriller that goes
to show what happens when man (or in this case, the decidedly feminine
Saffon Burrows, whom Harlin wisely allows to slip out of her wet-suit a
la Sigourney in ALIEN) decides to tamper with mother nature. The cause
is scientific experiments, but the consequence is the unleashing of a trio
of enhanced sharks who wreck havoc on helpless researchers trapped in an
underwater lab. The victims include shark wrangler Thomas Jane (quite good),
lab chef LL Cool J (in one of the summer's more engaging performances),
doctor Stellan Skarsgard and suit Samuel L. Jackson, who find themselves
trying to outwit the cunning maneaters and find their way to the surface.
DEEP BLUE SEA isn't going to set a new standard in effects or action-filmmaking,
but it does succeed on its own terms as a sturdy, effects-filled summer-time
thriller--the kind of nonsensical fantasy we need to have during the May-August
period, and have been deprived of in '99 up until this point.
The set-pieces keep coming, the special effects are often extraordinary,
and Harlin handles the entire affair with the panache he brought to DIE
HARD 2 and CLIFFHANGER, two of the best action films of the '90s. Following
a pair of bombs, it's great to see Harlin back in the saddle again; with
the movie's memorable climax and one ingeniously staged death sequence
(you'll know it when you see it), the director replaces visions of former
wife Geena Davis sinking in CUTTHROAT ISLAND and THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT
with the kind of well-edited, choreographed action scenes the director
became known for earlier in his career. The cast, meanwhile, fares well
and having a lack of star power in the lead roles only adds to the surprise
of the screenplay, a multi-authored affair by Duncan Kennedy and Donna
and Wayne Powers that, to give credit where it's due, even has its share
of good lines.
It's not high art, folks, but if you've waited for that one fun summer
flick that truly is the essence of a popcorn-muncing good time, DEEP BLUE
SEA is it. (106 mins, R)
ARLINGTON ROAD (**): Well-directed but amazingly depressing
and dour, this thriller with Jeff Bridges and Tim Robbins will leave most
audiences wanting to take a shower as soon as they get home.
Bridges plays a professor at George Washington University who thinks
his squeaky-clean, WASP-y neighbor (Tim Robbins) may be a hiding a secret.
Himself an expert in political conspiracies (you just know he'd love to
hold a cookout with Oliver Stone), Bridges believes that the past bombings
of government buildings'generally pegged on one or two suspects with little
prior criminal activity--is the work of a secret society of anti-government
types who shield themselves by putting on the facade of lovable small-town
Naturally, nobody believes Bridges until it's too late, and like all
of the formulas and cliches inherent in thriller genre conventions, ARLINGTON
ROAD boasts more than its share of stupid plot points-- including an incredible
ending that, never mind showing the work of anti-government fiends, has
'anti- audience' written all over it.
Bridges and Robbins are both fine but the real star that intermittently
shines in the film is director Mark Pellington, who deftly utilizes widescreen,
filter-filled cinematography and Angelo Badalamenti's bass-heavy, pounding
score to gloss over the movie's sour (and often silly) screenplay. He may
rise to the occasion with good material one day, but it's not ARLINGTON
ROAD. (R, 121 mins).
From Kyu Hyun Kim <email@example.com>
You are right on the mark with your criticism of EYES WIDE SHUT.
Now I would like to request that you take a look at BLAIR WITCH PROJECT.
The movie is the biggest sleeper hit I have seen in some time; literally
hundreds of people are lining up to buy tickets, which are being sold out
faster than for PHANTOM MENACE in its opening weekend, at least in Berkeley
and San Francisco. It is a great movie, a very well-made horror film, (God
knows it is infinitely superior to SCREAM and other prefabricated Hollywood
products) but why is this particular movie generating such a massive audience
support? Is this an isolated phenomenon in the Bay Area? The reviews in
the media are overwhelmingly positive, but there is definitely something
more going on here. I would like to know what you guys at FSM thinks not
only of the movie itself, but also of the intriguing usage, or non-usage,
rather, of music in it. The credits do list one "Antonio Cora"
as the composer, and there is a standard electronic ambience piece over
the end title, but in retrospect, I am beginning to wonder if some of the
"natrual sounds" used in the various scenes in the film, what
sounds like airplane flying over, wind blowing, etc., are actually incidental
music deployed at an almost subliminal level to subtly manipulate audience's
emotions. Totally intriguing.
Kyu, I think the reason for the phenomenal buzz about the movie is that
its word-of-mouth has carried it far beyond the festival circuit, and the
online advertising and promotion on behalf of the studio have been subtly
excessive. One of the best articles I read on the somewhat controversial
marketing of the film was in last Friday's Boston Globe, which detailed
how the internet played such a vital role in the movie's success (sadly
I couldn't find it online at boston.com).
As far as the "score" goes, I saw that music credit too and
have the feeling that the ambient sounds in the movie are a product of
the composer. Whether or not they are music deployed at a subliminal level,
though, is something I'd have to check out again on a second viewing. While
we're on the topic of the film's soundtrack, I have this thought: while
I know the film's budget was shoestring, by modern standards, I think Artisan
and the filmmakers would be wise to do a Dolby Surround stereo remix of
the movie for video and DVD -- it seems to me that the soundtrack would
have been even more effective if the surround channels were employed to
capture some of those creepy sounds in the woods. What do y'all think?
NEXT WEEK: THE SIXTH SENSE and your comments (more Mail Bag next
week, in other words!). Be sure to send in your two cents to me about BLAIR
WITCH, HAUNTING, or anything of note, at firstname.lastname@example.org
and have a good one!