Tag Ghosts

Ghost Ship (2002)

Ghost Ship (2002)

Sea evil

A salvage crew discover a long-lost 1962 passenger ship floating lifeless in a remote region of the Bering Sea. Heading aboard to inspect her before towing her back to land, the crew find more than they bargained for with a massive haul of gold bars in the cargo hold. However, strange things begin to happen to the crew and they realise that something is not quite right with this ship.

 

The late 90s and early 00s saw a number of big budget ghost films being released, including The Haunting, The House on Haunted Hill and Thir1en Ghosts, all three remakes of earlier haunted house horror films, revamped for a new generation of genre fans. American film label Dark Castle were responsible for two of those aforementioned attempts at recapturing the B-movie vibe of the originals and here they are with a third attempt. Ghost Ship is not a remake of anything but a film so unoriginal and filled with ideas from other films that it might as well be. Deep Rising, Event Horizon and The Shining seem to be high on the list of films that the makers of this have seen – even the poster has been ‘inspired’ by 1980’s Death Ship.

Starting off with an impressively gory set piece, the signs look good for Ghost Ship to continue its momentum. However, you’d be best off switching off at this point because the film goes downhill quickly. Director Steve Beck was responsible for the poor Thir1en Ghosts the year earlier and brings with him the same box of tricks that he believes create scares and makes films frightening. This involves horrible things popping out from unexpected places in front of the camera, lots of freaky spectral visions which twist and contort and then disappear, loud bursts of noise to startle the audience, nauseating camera angles, fast and slow motion shots, and ghosts playing tricks on people by making them believe something is real when it isn’t. Ghost Ship repeats the same tactics for pretty much the same results.  The scares aren’t effective. The smoke and mirrors show wears thin. It’s all style over substance. Don’t get me wrong, the film looks good. The ship itself is suitably spooky and the cinematography is decent at creating an ominous atmosphere – it’s a shame that there’s not much to go with it.

Ghost Ship is a film geared towards its final twist. It’s hardly a riveting revelation to base an entire story around and I’m sure the writers were giving themselves a massive pat on the back whilst structuring the narrative around it. The problem is that it affects the rest of the film – it’s such a pointless last-minute dash to turn the story on its head that you’ll be thinking about all of the contradictions it raises from the previous hour of screen time. It’s the only novel thing about the entire script. Everything else runs as predictability as the sun rising and setting every day. Without a really meaty story, Beck relies on his bag of tricks that he’s accumulated from the commercials that he directed before heading into feature films. Only pre-pubescent teenagers with no concept of real horror films would believe that Ghost Ship was clever and unpredictable!

More of the blame can be squarely laid at the script rather than anything else on show. The salvage team is your usual eclectic group of people who, in the real world, would most likely not give each other the time of day. However this is a horror film and so diversity is essential. The group is made up of stereotypes and you’ll be able to paint numbers on their heads as to who is going to die and in what order. The kills are a mixed bunch – nothing quite like the gory prologue – and are fairly over-the-top in traditional slasher film fashion.

The sad thing is that there’s a decent cast bubbling around doing not very much. Gabriel Byrne is a good actor but he’s hamming it up as the alcoholic captain due to the dodgy script. Julianna Margulies looks like she’d rather be back on ER than trying to ‘do a Ripley’ and be the all-action female hero. Look out for Karl Urban (Dr McCoy in the new Star Trek films, Judge Dredd in the excellent Dredd, etc.) in an earlier role as one of the expendable crew. We know that this people can act so give them something to get their teeth into rather than forcing them to spout some bone-headed dialogue. At least the script does one thing right: as soon as the group find the stash of gold, they decide to pack it up and leave the ship as soon as possible.

 

Ghost Ship is a horror film intended for the easily-impressed MTV audience – superficial scares designed to appeal to pimply-faced teenagers sneaking into the cinema to see their first horror movie. There’s no foundation to the fancy trickery and anyone with half a brain will be able to see straight through the fog machines and strobe lights and realise what Ghost Ship truly is. 

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Fog, The (1980)

The Fog (1980)

When the fog rolls in… the terror begins!

Antonio Bay has just turned a hundred years old and is getting ready to celebrate its centennial year. But as the residents of the small, quaint harbour town begin to prepare for the festivities, a mysterious cloud of fog appears upon the shore and begins to make its way across town, leaving a trail of horrifying slaughter until the deathly, dark secrets of Antonio Bay’s blood-soaked history are finally revealed.

 

John Carpenter’s directorial follow-up from Halloween, The Fog is his much-overlooked classic. A traditional ghost story with a slight hint of the violence that the 80s was to embody, Carpenter was always going to be up against comparisons to his earlier masterpiece and does an admirable job of nearly getting away with it. It was a commercial success on release but not so much in the way of critical acclaim. Like much of Carpenter’s earlier work (I’m looking particularly at The Thing), it is only over time that the film has started to receive the praise it deserves.

With a production team virtually identical to those that worked with him on Halloween, Carpenter is able to replicate a lot of the feel of that film with The Fog. All of his trademark visuals are present here, including the gorgeously-shot anamorphic widescreen which makes Antonio Bay appear to one of the scariest places in the world. There’s the slow-burner approach which maintains a steady pace leading up to the more chaotic finale. Carpenter also scores the film and brings his own unique style of synth to add to the ambiance. It’s classic Carpenter from his most creative and fertile period as a director, with the focus on creepiness and unsettling his audience rather than going in for the obvious kill.

The star of the show has to be the fog itself. Carpenter shoots it in a way to give it a life and soul of its own, let alone the horrors that it hides within. Sticking a couple of strong lights inside a load of dry ice might not sound the greatest technique but it’s effective – check out the scenes with the fog slowly encroaching on the fishing vessel or shrouding the weather station in its deathly vapour and tell me that this isn’t scary. Cinematographer Dean Cundey deserves a lot of the credit for this as he works almost totally at night throughout the film and utilises a variety of lighting techniques to really sell this town as a spooky place. Constantly back-lighting the ghosts also increases the sinister presence – you never truly get a good look at them and they appear as silhouettes. Perhaps Carpenter relies a little too heavily on Cundey’s obvious skill at creating mood and doesn’t do as much with the story to further this on as he could have done.

See were The Fog really fails is with its story full of convenient twists and turns and poorly written characters, most of whom are paper-thin. There are too many characters for a start and a good two-thirds of them contribute little to nothing to the film. Apart from Adrienne Barbeau’s gusty DJ who spends most of the film on her own screaming into the radio, we don’t warm to any other of the main characters. Tom Atkins’ character is meant to the hero I’m guessing but he’s hardly the focus of the story. Jamie Lee Curtis has a lesser role as a hitchhiker who hooks up with Atkins’ character (it always made me laugh how easy it was for the older Atkins to get the young Curtis into the sack in the film) – I’m guessing she was cast for name value as her star was shining brightly after Halloween a few years earlier. The Fog marks the only occasion in which she starred alongside her mother, Janet Leigh (another genre veteran from Hitchcock’s classic Psycho). There are appearances from Nancy Loomis and Charles Cyphers, two other Carpenter regulars.

It isn’t just the characters who suffer from a script which needed more work. Whilst the overall story of spectral vengeance is time-and-tested, there’s not a lot else going on apart from that. I guess keeping it simple is relative to the film’s success but the script does throw in too many gimmicky events to try and keep this theme of undead retaliation going as long as possible: bodies that come alive in morgues; piece of driftwood which start gushing water; and all of the clocks and alarms in the town going crazy upon the stroke of midnight. The idea that the ghosts are back for revenge and to claim six lives also puts some restraints on the film’s later scenes. Once the body count has increased (and early scene does a pretty good job of getting that number up quickly), then you’ll be sat counting the numbers on your figures. It doesn’t mean to say that you know who will die, just how many more.

Despite Carpenter’s attempts to make a traditional chiller, his first edit required that he add more violence to the film to give it some punch. Hence the ghosts don’t just come back for revenge, they come back for brutal revenge. Fish hooks and knives are the implement of choice for this band of marauders and they do a quick and efficient job with their victims. The short, sharp bursts of sporadic violence do unsettle the deliberate pacing but actually work well to heighten the sense that these ghosts will stop at nothing to get what, and who, they want. The film isn’t very bloody but the aggressive and merciless nature of some of the deaths will make you think you’ve seen a lot more than you have.

The Fog was one of the first of the huge swathe of remakes that Hollywood has forced upon us since the mid-200s, but the less said about that awful abomination, the better.

 

A great atmosphere, some excellent chills, stunning visuals, nervy sounds and generally well-crafted approach make The Fog one of horror’s most under-appreciated gems. Not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination and it does have obvious issues but it’s one of a small breed of films which nails the mood and tone of chilling horror to perfection.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Dead End (2003)

Dead End (2003)

Read the signs

It’s Christmas Eve and, on the way to the in-laws with his family, Frank Harrington decides to take a short cut for the first time in twenty years. It turns out to the biggest mistake he ever made as, stuck in the middle of nowhere with his family, a horrific chain of events is put into motion.

 

Films like Dead End are why I trawl through hours of absolute rubbish, nonsense and bizarre horror films. There is always one little nugget of gold hiding amongst the mud. A film which has received little fanfare, is little known and is most likely never going to rank on any Top 10 lists. Dead End is such a nugget. Whilst it’s never going to rank up there as one of my favourites, it’s a very solid way to spend ninety minutes.

Feeling like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone with a slight twang of every popular road trip horror movie from the last thirty years thrown in for good measure, Dead End will not impress anyone who goes in looking for something a little meatier. It’s low budget. It’s got a very simple plot. And for seasoned veterans, you’ll be able to figure out exactly where the film is heading right from the start. But that doesn’t mean to say you’re not going to enjoy it. Dead End was a total breath of fresh air for me and it’s certainly one of the better horror films I’ve seen over recent years. Sometimes it pays to keep things straightforward and a little old school and what you have with Dead End is a film with a simple hook that reels you in almost from the outset. Everything is done with a tinge of black humour just simmering underneath the surface.

Focusing on characters and engineering a really creepy vibe instead of relying on gore and cheap schlock devices, Dead End doesn’t feel like your generic American horror (with two French guys at the helm, there’s a good reason for that). Budget constraints probably forced their hand more than they would have wanted but the lack of budget has helped the duo bring out the best of a bad situation. Well-shot, with plenty of tension and lots of lurking menace, Dead End gives off a spooky vibe as soon as the proverbial hits the fan when the family are grounded along the road. It won’t give you sleepless nights but there are some well-placed jumpy moments to go along with the eeriness.

The use of this one location – the long road to nowhere – gives you the impression of no escape. There’s always the sense that something horrible could happen at any minute and you’re kept on your toes throughout. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. A lot of things occur during the course of the film that have no explanation. It’s all part of the master plan to keep the story ticking over until the end. Sadly, for genre lovers, this end will come as no surprise to anyone and what’s worse is that there are plenty of threads and ideas left hanging. Dead End undoes all of its good work with a really poor final ten minutes.

With the film confined to one remote location, this means that there’s not going to be too many characters cluttering up the screen. So it was essential to the film’s success that these characters be well-developed: realistic, sympathetic and heroic in equal measure. Plus it was important that they weren’t annoying – it’s the kiss of death for a film when you want to see the characters die. Seeing this family unit break down amidst a nightmare scenario gives the story a central focus. Ray Wise, fresh from battling monsters in Jeepers Creepers 2, stars as Frank Harrington. I don’t want to typecast the guy but he certainly has carved out a little niche for these father-figures and it’s great to see him taking centre stage again. He’s a quality character actor and you can feel his mixed emotions and pain. Alexandra Holden, as the daughter, and Lin Shaye, as Frank’s long-suffering wife, both give quality performances too to really add to the family character. Shaye overdoes it a bit when she loses her sanity but it’s still a great performance.

 

Dead End is a refreshing horror film which proves that in this genre, real talent shines through if you have a budget of $100m or $1. The ending is a bit of a cop-out but the ride there is fun and the company is good.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Route 666 (2001)

Route 666 (2001)

On the road to Hell, there’s no turning back

A team of US federal agents are sent to retrieve a high profile mob witness who fled before he was supposed to appearing in court to testify. Eventually tracking him down in the desert, the agents aren’t the only ones looking for him as mob hit men are hot in pursuit. Deciding to take a shortcut down Route 66, nicknamed locally as Route 666, the agents encounter the murderous ghosts of a dead chain gang who were killed on the road years earlier.

 

In 1988, a first-time director by the name of William Wesley unleashed the cult hit Scarecrows upon the horror world but then disappeared off the face of the planet. Such a promising debut was never built upon and Wesley’s potential went to waste. That was until thirteen years later when Wesley returned with Route 666. The question has to be asked: if you’re going to wait that long between making films, why make something as average as Route 666 on your return? Why bother coming back for this?

Wesley hasn’t learnt any new tricks in his time away from the camera. In fact, Route 666 plays out in similar fashion to Scarecrows: an assorted group of people trapped in the middle of nowhere with a small group of very deadly things after them. Swap the scarecrows out, put the chain gang ghosts in and you’ve got a very similar film. That’s not maybe such a bad thing at times but it goes to show how little Wesley wants to experiment with a ‘winning’ formula (though it has taken years for Scarecrows to gain an appreciative following).

Route 666 is a timewaster, plain and simple. There’s nothing worth going back for. There’s little to warrant a first look. It just exists to pass away an hour and a half without too much fuss. Sometimes that’s all you want from a film. But given the debut pedigree of the director, it’s such a wasted opportunity. There’s little sign of the qualities that made Scarecrows such an atmospheric, moody horror flick. Route 666 is mainly set during the day which makes it difficult to generate much suspense. The barren desert plains that sprawl for miles don’t exactly lend themselves to things sneaking up on our heroes but at least they give the viewer that nice sense of isolation. If you were in any doubt that these people were in the middle of nowhere, then the nice desert cinematography will quell that doubt.

Shooting during the day not only removes the use of creepy lighting and shadows in order to build suspense but means that the chain gang ghosts are fully visible in the daylight every time they appear. That’s a gutsy move for any horror director in exposing your monsters in the sun for the audience to see them in all of their glory. Thankfully the ghosts look alright – well they’re basically in human form whenever we see them with a bit of fancy make-up slapped on and they have the ability to appear out of nowhere (which begs the question of why they don’t just appear behind the characters to take them by surprise all of the time). The ghosts like to use whatever tools they were using when they died so expect jackhammers, sledgehammers and other sharp and blunt objects used for stabbing and smashing the expendable cast. The film isn’t overly gory but the odd punctuated moment of blood is a welcome addition.

So the film has some alright-looking ghosts to unleash upon the cast and it wants to unleash them in a decent location…..so where does it all go wrong? Route 666 has a terrible script. The unspeakably dumb things that these characters do to put themselves in peril to begin with and then continue to do throughout the film just smacks of lack of ideas on behalf of the writers. It’s lazy writing that has characters doing things which fly in the face of what a normal, sane person would do in that situation simply to ensure that the plot is furthered. The dumb script keeps the pace of the film as flat as a freshly squashed piece of roadkill too, with the odd moment of violence and action being lost amidst a sea of talky exposition.

The cast isn’t great either. Lou Diamond Phillips has the personality of a wet paper bag and is never able to grasp the mantle of being the main star. Together he and co-star Lori Petty have zero chemistry and seem to be reflecting on how far their careers have nose dived. Steven Williams has one of those instantly recognisable faces where you’ll know what he’s been in but not remember his name. He had a recurring role in The X-Files as the shady Mr X for a start but genre fans will most likely remember him from Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. Rarely the main man and always a good hand in support, Williams makes the most of some more screen time in a role mainly designed for comic relief. His motor-mouth mob witness character spouts off the film’s best lines and he brings a much-needed dose of energy to the film. It’s a shame that he couldn’t share it around.

 

Route 666 has fleeting moments of potential but they’re too few and far between to make any sort of lasting impression. Wesley’s eagerly-anticipated return to the director’s chair ends in a costly detour down Route 66, setting him back thirteen years at least.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Prison (1988)

Prison (1988)

Horror Has A New Home.

The old, abandoned Creedmore Prison is reopened due to overcrowding and former guard turned warden Ethan Sharpe is placed in charge to oversee the arrival of the first inmates. But when prisoners on work duty break into the bricked-up execution chamber, they unwittingly release the spirit of a former prisoner who was executed there for a crime he didn’t commit. Now the spirit is out for vengeance and Sharpe is the main target.

 

I love discovering films like Prison, lost gems from the 80s which have been forgotten about and rarely seen the light of day until some modern day distributor has decided to take a punt and release them onto DVD and blu-ray. It gives people the chance to discover quality little genre films like this – stylish, low budget horror films which emphasis what old-fashioned horror making was all about – atmosphere, tension and creeping the audience out.

Though director Renny Harlin has since made for himself in big budget Hollywood action films like Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, his eye for horror is actually pretty good and he seems  far more capable when dealing with a low budget film here than he did with his bloated blockbusters. Even the opening sequences, a first person point-of-view of an inmate taking the walk from his cell to the electric chair, is better than pretty much anything else he’s done in Hollywood since.

Prison‘s atmosphere is one of its strongest selling points. Filmed inside an actual abandoned prison, there’s no pandering to picture perfect studio sets here. This is one big, cold and very dark place, unforgiving in its brutal nature and an ideal location in which to unleash some Hell-bent force of revenge. Dusty, dirty, damp and dangerous, Harlin avoids shining too much light into the inner bowels of the prison, keeping things shadowy and murky. This makes the ghostly blue light, which signals the arrival of the vengeful spirit, even more ominous as it lights up the screen with its eerie, unholy shine. This is a prison where you wouldn’t want to incarcerated, let alone be incarcerated with something sinister.

Into this harsh setting comes a diverse group of characters, most of who play up to generic prison stereotypes (the predatory letch, his skinny white cell mate, the jacked-up black guy, an elderly old sage, etc) but who are all afforded some decent screen time to develop something out of nothing roles. Viggo Mortensen stars in an early role and it’s a by-the-book performance, showing us early signs of how good an actor he would turn out to be but not really doing much to challenge the stereotype of a hot-shot new inmate. Lane Smith steals the show as the bad ass warden, chewing up the scenery without crossing over the border into cartoon territory. The rest of the cast is filled up with a slew of character actors from the mammoth Tom ‘Tiny’ Lister to Tom Everett.

Prison takes it’s time settling down but Harlin never goes for the jugular straight away, deciding to tease out the mystery of the prison a little more and never taking the audience for granted by explaining all. There’s no question just who is doing the killing why – I’ve seen too many horror films to be fooled by that anymore. But it’s interesting to see how things unfold. Sadly Chelsea Field’s rather pointless character adds a bit of dead weight to proceedings with her sub-plot in trying to get to the bottom of the mystery clearly being introduced just to shoe-horn a female into a male prison. There are a lot of other hints and loose ends that the film teases you with but then never addresses them (including the most blatant by showing us that Mortensen’s character is a reincarnation of the executed inmate but then never raises this issue again)

Shortly after Harlin made this, he was snapped up to helm A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master and the similarities between the two horror films are evident. Prison has a mean streak which makes for some great set pieces, in particular the numerous fates that the prisoners and guards meet throughout the film. Characters are melted alive in their cells, have steel pipes slowly driven into their skulls or are wrapped from head-to-toe in barbed wire, all courtesy of some splendid effects work by noted genre veteran John Carl Buechler. These kills share a fantastical, nightmarish quality, much in keeping with the way that Freddy Krueger killed off his victims in their dreams so you can understand why Harlin was approached. There aren’t too many deaths but such is the quality of the ones on display, you’ll believe that the whole film was a gore-drenched massacre.

 

Prison is a good-old fashioned creepy horror film which does a lot of things right and ticks a lot of boxes. Unfortunately some glaring script issues and some pacing issues towards the finale third really do hold this back from becoming a true cult classic. Definitely work a look if you can find it.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1992)

Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1992)

A killer is waiting… In the past, present and future.

After escaping from the wax museum with their lives, Mark and Sarah think that the ordeal is over. But a severed hand has survived and follows Sarah home, killing her father and framing her for murder. In order to clear her name, the couple go to the late Sir Wilfred’s house to look for evidence. Here they find a pre-recorded film to play by Sir Wilfred and a compass which unlocks the doors of the universe. Travelling through time to find some evidence, Mark and Sarah must then do battle with Lord Scarabus, a time warrior, in order to get back home.

 

Yeah it’s a flimsy plot which has nothing to do with waxworks at all but Waxwork II: Lost in Time is certainly not a sequel to get lost on story. A lot more tongue-in-cheek than the original was, this sequel is virtually a series of interconnected homages based around other films – kind of like a grown-up version of Time Bandits without the little dwarves running around doing silly stuff. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and the MacGuffin of the time portals is such a contrived plot device that it’s best you switch your brain off right at the start – even the idea to go back in time and find evidence to support Sarah’s court case is ludicrously manufactured just to get the duo moving on their travels. It’s weak. We know it. I think the characters know it too. But hey, once they start flying through time, we don’t care.

Though the film picks up moments after the original ended, it’s hard to believe that the film is supposed to be following on. With Zach Galligan looking a lot older and a new actress playing Sarah, the film should have just started up a few years down the line. Plot aside, the film does work in places but it’s too sporadic to be considered a cult classic like the original despite director Anthony Hickox’s best efforts to make it one. Technically Mark and Sarah don’t even travel through time as they flit from film to film. Firstly, they arrive in Baron Frankenstein’s mansion before stumbling into a spoof of The Haunting and a spaceship which has an Alien-sized problem. The Frankenstein segment is terrible, with Martin Kemp hamming it up with an overblown German accent as the Baron, but there is a ghoulishly gory ending which I wasn’t expecting (and it was nice to see). The two following spoofs both work well.

Bruce Campbell makes an appearance in The Haunting segment and it’s one of the best parts of the film as his lofty professor has his chest ripped open and rib cage exposed. His character tries to downplay the severity of his injuries (ala the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and attempts to save him and stop the ghost result in inadvertent torture and hilarity. Campbell owns the scene and downplays his performance to a tee. The segment has also been filmed in black and white to add to the original The Haunting vibe (and there are also a few The Evil Dead nods too).

The Alien spoof drags out a guy-in-a-suit as the alien, lots of visual nods to Ridley Scott’s classic and a cast who seem to be trying their best to keep a straight face. Heavy on prosthetics and gloriously cheesy old school make-up effects, this sequence probably does the best of trying to recapture the old 80s horror-comedy feel. The alien is quite a dab hand at crushing things, especially humans, and the face-hugger style monster at the ends drips with goo. Again it’s a nice homage to Alien and doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Sadly the rest of the story takes place during a Middle Ages period featuring King Arthur and the villain of the piece, Lord Scarabus (played by infamous Die Hard villain Alexander Godunov) and it’s the most boring of the segments. It’s almost as if the story ran out of budget to continually have the characters appearing on new sets every few minutes and decided to ground them in one place for the duration – unfortunately for us it is the most boring time zone in the film.

Thankfully the final fight between Mark and Scarabus involves the two men fighting through time, encountering the likes of Mr Hyde, Nosferatu, Jack the Ripper, zombies from a Dawn of the Dead-style shopping mall and some giant monster I’m assuming is meant to be Godzilla amongst others. This sequence alone is worth the wait: the film effortlessly switches between its homages as the characters tussle through the time doorways. It’s certainly a more structured finale than the original had but the rounding off of the film with the stupid court room scene ends things on a whimper. We know how ridiculous the premise had been at the time and this last scene proves it.

 

Waxwork II: Lost in Time is a slightly different take on the same material as the original but still a lot of fun nevertheless. Some of the homages seem hackneyed and just included by the makers of the film to say “hey, look we know our films” but there’s a good-natured vibe running underneath everything and whilst some of the material is gory or violent, it is never meant to be taken any other way than campy tongue-in-cheek fun.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Stir of Echoes (1999)

Stir of Echoes (1999)

Some doors weren’t meant to be opened

Sceptical Tom Witzky allows his sister-in-law to hypnotise him at a party because he doesn’t believe she can do it and takes her up on a dare. She manages to but shortly afterwards Tom begins to hallucinate and has visions of a dead girl around his house. It seems as though something in his mind has been unlocked and he has become a receptor of supernatural forces. He begins a quest to find out what happened to the girl and why she is haunting his dreams and his house in order to put a stop to them.

 

Stir of Echoes had no chance to succeed at the box office because it was inevitably going to be compared to The Sixth Sense. Supernatural horror-thrillers had seen little mainstream success over the years and it was a relatively untapped genre. So when a couple of similar films came along at once, the later one was always going to be labelled as a clone or knock-off, even though Stir of Echoes was out the same year and thus went into development at the same time. Released at the wrong time in 1999 by coming hot on the heels of The Sixth Sense, audiences already had their supernatural thrill with M. Night Shyamalan’s overrated hit and thus Stir of Echoes only managed to gross in its entire run not even as much as the The Sixth Sense had grossed in its opening weekend alone. It’s a pity because Stir of Echoes is by far the better of the two in my eyes as it’s a more satisfying whole and more even film, constantly producing the goods instead of relying on one over-exposed twist.

I’ll go on record and state that ghost stories have never been my favourite sub-genre – see how few films I’ve reviewed from this sub-genre as proof. I tend to find their approaches to be somewhat slow and plodding and I really need to be in the right mood to watch one. They’re not exactly full of memorable moments as their effectiveness usually relies upon an assured build, cranking tension and atmosphere up as the film goes on. I’m a simply man of simple pleasures and prefer to see people ripped apart by monsters or psychos so patience sometimes is not my virtue when confronted with ghostly goings-on. However I must say that Stir of Echoes had been hooked all the way through.

The underlying story is predictable and Stir of Echoes proceeds along the lines of a typical murder-mystery, with various cryptic clues scattered around to assist Tom Witzky (Kevin Bacon) in solving the crime. The major problem here is with the finale and it was always going to be a let-down as we can see it coming a mile away courtesy of the familiar build-up. But thankfully the film has done a great job of keeping things flowing quickly that your interest will remain right until the last frame. A number of great scares are strewn throughout the film with the ghostly figure of the little girl popping up on a number of occasions in surprising locations. Never outright nasty, the film at least manages to keep a rather menacing tone going meaning you’re never sure whether the film is about to hit you with a brutal sucker punch or not.

The more effective scenes are those which involve little in the way of ‘boo’ scares and more in the way of eerie build-up. Bacon’s character, Tom Witky, begins having premonition dreams which leads to a number of creepy moments, in particular an effective sequence involving his neighbour, his son and a loaded gun which is a dream to begin with but then Witzky starts to notice all the details from the dream are happening in real life. The audience is on edge having already seen the outcome of the dream – will it occur in the real world in the same manner? The hypnosis scenes also draw the audience into the film. They are filmed as if we are present at the event, the camera acting as Witzky’s POV – as he closes his eyes, the screen goes blank and we can only hear what is going on. It’s a great scene and one which is made all the better for the actor behind Tom Witzky.

There are a bunch of actors in Hollywood that I can guarantee are value for money in their films. They may not be the biggest paid names, and rarely headline their own big budget films, but they’re good quality supporting actors who are grossly underrated and really get into their roles, especially when they’re given the starring role of a smaller film like Stir of Echoes. Kevin Bacon is one such actor. He’s always worth a watch in whatever he’s in (OK so maybe the new ads he’s starring in on UK TV are a bit annoying) and Stir of Echoes is no exception. He channels the intensity, paranoia, frustration, confusion and near insanity of his character down to a tee. There are elements of Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining here and Bacon does well to keep things on the ground without coming off as too over-the-top. Kathryn Erbe, who plays his wife in the film, is an excellent foil for him. The two have a good chemistry and create a believable and workable view of marriage and family life in which to unleash this ghostly menace. No pretentious teenager leads here. No caricatures. Just honest, hard-working family people we can associate with which really hammers home the horror of their situation when it all goes pear-shaped – just the way horror films should be.

 

Stir of Echoes is not appreciated enough and I wonder if that’s down to The Sixth Sense effect. Who knows what would have happened had the film releases been swapped around. Whilst this may not contain the shocking twist ending of its counterpart, it does a better all-round job of delivering the supernatural scares. The finale lets Stir of Echoes down but the rest of the film is chilling stuff.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Furnace (2006)

Furnace (2007)

Somewhere between prison and hell lies the furnace.

A sudden spate of suicides amongst inmates occurs when a long-closed section of Blackgate Prison is re-opened to house an overflow of prisoners. Detective Michael Turner is called in to investigate these tragedies and slowly uncovers the real supernatural story: that a vengeful spirit has been unearthed and is out to get revenge.

 

Furnace is every bit as dull and as predictable as it sounds, just another generic ghost film which throws in the same one or two frame close-ups of ghosts, lots of nauseating camera work and a general sense of been there, done that. The Asians have pretty much cornered the market in creepy ghost stories featuring child ghosts and there’s nothing that Furnace has in its arsenal that even comes close to matching its international supernatural competition.

In fact there’s not a large amount of the supernatural on show here. Most of Furnace is grounded in the traditional cop thriller mould and there are lots of scenes of our heroic detective piecing together bits of the puzzle by questioning, reading up on articles and generally being a nuisance around the prison. When the film stays inside the confines of the prison, Furnace isn’t too bad. It was shot inside an old Tennessee prison so the realistic setting gives it some added impact above anything some stage sets could handle. Some of the scenes inside do manage to kick start the film into life, particularly the early ‘suicide’ inside one of the cells and there are some solid special effects including crawling severed fingers. But these are too sporadic and the film never really gets going, opting to stay within its limited scope instead of trying anything adventurous.

Michael Pare plays Detective Turner completely by-the-book. He’s action man when he needs to be, he’s tender and romantic when he’s wooing the ladies and he’s good at his job during the “let’s play cop” scenes. Pare is solid enough to do what is expected of his character in the film but there’s not an awful lot of depth to his character despite some attempts at back story. Tom Sizemore co-stars as one of the prison guards who has history with Turner. Naturally this sub-plot goes virtually nowhere and is simply another obstruction for Turner to get past in his quest to solve the case. Sizemore phones the performance in and, save for an unintentionally-hilarious scene where he completely flips and starting shooting inmates, the role is very poorly written.

Spare a thought for Danny Trejo, a man so entrenched in stereotype that you just assume he’s going to be playing the same role in every film he’s in. Trejo stars as, you guessed it, a tough guy inmate. He’s joined by rapper Ja Rule but both characters are so insignificant to the main story that it would have been better to cut them out entirely and devote a bit more time to the main characters.

 

Furnace is a lifeless ghost flick, trapped between playing up the horror aspects and playing out the crime thriller aspects. Lumbering along a dull path, it manages to do neither aspect very well.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Lost Voyage (2001)

Lost Voyage (2001)

After 30 years in the Bermuda Triangle … a GHOST SHIP returns

Twenty-five years ago, the SS Corona Queen disappeared in the region known as the Bermuda Triangle. When it suddenly re-appears, a team of investigators head on board with a salvage team to find out what happened. But the ship didn’t return from the Bermuda Triangle alone.

 

Ghost Ship anyone? Incorrectly speaking to class it a rip-off, Lost Voyage was actually made first and manages to be better than the previously mentioned horror flick, opting not to go for the visual jugular with gore and special effects but instead trying to craft a more traditional and scary ghost flick. Actually Lost Voyage has more in common with 1997’s sci-fi horror Event Horizon. Comparing it to both bigger budget films is decent praise to kick off the review and Christian McIntire’s ambitious shocker is certainly punching above its own weight.

For a TV movie, Lost Voyage does relatively well for its budgetary limitations. The first thing that will strike you is how pedestrian it all looks though. There’s little life and energy to the cinematography and everything is glossed over with that typical TV-movie low budget sheen. This is a shame as the ship itself looks pretty spooky at times and the sets are quite atmospheric. But they lack that extra enhancement which the cinematography could have given them. Even though the film is set solely at night, the ship itself is too well lit. Dimming the lights a little to create dark and shadowy backgrounds is what the film should have done.

There are a couple of strong performances from Janet Gunn as the reporter and Judd Nelson as the researcher – they could have been just any other stereotypical cannon fodder characters but at least they bring a bit of depth and likeability to their roles. Nelson could have cut out his mumbling though as he sometimes drifts through his dialogue. Lance Henriksen pops up and manages to completely outshine his previous six or seven roles in low budget films to remind us that he was once a decent character actor before he was reduced to starring in trash such as Mangler 2: Graduation Day.

The characters are well-written for a change and it is refreshing to see. They do (for the most part) sensible things – Henriksen’s character tells the rest of the group that they have to get off the ship as soon as the first person is killed. He’s not bothered about the money on board and just wants to save his life. Characters do things that give them believability, not just provide opportunities to put them into set pieces.

Sadly little else makes sense in the film. The ghosts themselves are mean spirited in some occasions but are quite happy to let characters walk past other times without even batting an eyelid at them. There are a few small plot threads that aren’t explained very well (if at all) such as the ghosts using people’s fears against them. And of course, when you’re watching a ‘haunted place’ film you should expect to feel one or two shivers which this film greatly fails to produce. The special effects for the ghosts aren’t bad for CGI but you won’t actually care because they look quite graceful when floating around the ship. For once CGI has its appropriate uses and the ghosts aren’t overdone. They’re not scary though!

 

Lost Voyage is an ambitious film held down by its budget and lack of creativity. For a TV movie it’s impressive and looks and sounds good throughout. But it lacks the finishing touch and without any real chills or scares throughout, the film suffers from being too familiar with any other ghost ship film.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Fog, The (2005)

The Fog (2005)

From The Makers Of “Halloween”

One hundred years ago off the coast of Antonio Bay, a ship full of lepers was betrayed by the town’s founding fathers and burned, killing everyone aboard. Now in the town’s centennial celebration, the ghosts of the murdered victims return to the town for revenge on the descendants and killing anyone else who stands in their path.

 

Why? Just why? I could quite easily end my review there and I’d be happy knowing that I had devoted as little time of my life as possible on one of the most wretched remakes I’ve ever seen, perhaps the worst of the bunch. Its got some tough company to beat with the likes of the Prom Night remake but I think The Fog just beats them out simply because it is somehow manages to screw up the rather generic material of the original in impossible ways. Let’s face it: John Carpenter’s original 1980′s chiller has its problems and isn’t perfect but it’s a terrific ghost story with a really creepy atmosphere and some spooky effects to boot. However it was one of few early films of his that had room for improvements (you can’t tell me Halloween could have been improved!). I mean there were plot holes, unexplained happenings for the sake of cool effects and it was overly talky during the middle stretch of the film before the fog finally rolled into town in the finale.

So why not gut everything that worked back then and replace it with superficial teenage characters and a bonanza of completely un-scary CGI effects? Well that’s what Mr Wainright and co have done with The Fog. The basic story itself is a simple one of revenge and there’s little change here from that of the original. But that’s why the story worked so well before – the simplicity of it. There weren’t dozens of plot twists, overly-developed characters (though I always thought there were a few too many holed up in the church in the finale) and a necessity to challenge the audience. It was just a ghost story, pure and simple. It had one direction that it wanted to go and went there without deviation or hesitation. But now the story is home to complicated characters and ridiculous plot twists, adding unnecessary layers to a film who’s strength was it’s shunning of these elements.

The characters that Jamie Lee Curtis and Tom Atkins both played in the original have been ‘watered’ down to generic hunky boyfriend and hot blonde girlfriend with a romantic back story just in case things weren’t complicated enough with vengeful ghosts. You won’t give a rat’s ass about them so that’s even worse news for the rest of the cast, an assortment of clichéd sidekicks, barking mad old men and sinister mayors. Now there is even a weird sub-plot about one of the main characters being a reincarnation of one of the original victims (or something….I have no idea what was going on).Tom Welling and Maggie Grace have blatantly been cast for their facial features in an attempt to appeal to the teenage market. The only ‘old hand’ on show is Selma Blair and, at 32, she’s not exactly pushing it.

As with the original, this really treads water in the middle section because the fog isn’t anywhere to be seen and there’s no sign of the ghosts. Maybe that’s a good thing though. The main scare factor from the original was, for me, the fog itself. Dry ice with a few strobe lights inside has never looked scarier. I mean when that stuff crept in, you knew there was something lurking around inside – it was just too thick to see through. Although you never got a proper look at the undead sailors in the original, they were still simply guys with a bit of make-up on and they sported some kick ass weapons (I’ll never forget the brutal assault on the three guys in the boat at the beginning of the original). But what do we get here? CGI fog for the most which has zero effect, considering you can tell a lot of the work is clearly blue screen. It’s too gimmicky, moving around into numerous shapes and sizes but without any sort of creeping menace. The ghosts are mainly CGI spooks too which fly freely in the air and have no real menace to them. Without a ‘physical’ presence in the film to commit their dastardly acts, you never once get the sense that these are scares spectres.

Though John Carpenter was on board as a co-producer, it’s clear that he had little to no input in the final product (or at least I hope he didn’t!). One of the overwhelming issues with The Fog is purely its lack of any sort of ghostly atmosphere. There’s no impending sense of doom, no form of slow-burn suspense and the ‘scares’ are so in your face, they’re telegraphed a few minutes in advance. This is about as manufactured a horror film as they go nowadays – all CGI style without the substance.

 

I’m the first to admit that some of the recent remakes have been pretty good updates: Dawn of the Dead, The Hills Have Eyes and even the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (c’mon it wasn’t that bad). However this is not going to be joining the crew. I’ve seen scarier steam clouds coming from boiling kettles than the fog here. The Fog is one of the worst remakes of all time and something that should have been sunk with the lepers who came back for revenge.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆