Phoenix Forgotten (2017)

Released: April 21, 2017. Directed by: Justin Barber. Starring: Florence Hartigan, Luke Spencer Roberts, Chelsea Lopez. Runtime: 1h27 min. 

Phoenix Forgotten is like one of those films that come out of nowhere, but this is because of a quiet marketing campaign. It tries to replicate the success of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, and it’s disappointingly mediocre (especially with the involvement of Ridley Scott’s production company Scott Free Productions).

Integrated at the centre of the story is the Phoenix Lights, a triangular light formation that was seen from Phoenix, Arizona in March 1997. It’s never been explained, and is the most famous so-called UFO sighting in the world.

The fictional story comes with three teens – Josh Bishop (Luke Spencer Roberts), Ashley Foster (Chelsea Lopez), and Mark Abrams (Justin Matthews) – who disappeared without a trace investigating the Phoenix Lights. 20 years later in 2017, Josh Bishop’s sister Sophie (Florence Hartigan), 26, is investigating the disappearance. She discusses it with her own parents and Ashley’s parents as she makes a documentary.

It’s interesting learning about the Phoenix Lights. It’s famous, but I never heard about it, so it’s intriguing. I thought it was just making a generic UFO sighting and developing mythology; instead, it interestingly blends some truth with a lot of fiction, and the unexplained phenomena has some intrigue. That’s what makes some of the first hour interesting.

The story doesn’t flow well as it skips between Sophie making a documentary in 2017 about the disappearance, and back to Josh and Ashley making a documentary about the Phoenix Lights in 1997 (Josh was an aspiring director, so he filmed everything). It thereby mixes some docu-drama with found footage.

Sophie mostly just talks to her parents and other experts who give lots of speculation. They say forgettable stuff, and there are so many boring interview subjects that I found myself forgetting who was who. It’s interesting how Sophie’s parents were affected after Josh has been missing for 20 years with no closure. It’s heartbreaking, but besides them, the emotional connection is non-existent; as the characters are one-dimensional.

Phoenix ForgottenJosh is single-minded and becomes obsessed when he gets an idea in his head. I liked seeing in his room that he was sci-fi enthusiast with X-Files and Alien posters all over his room. Ashley’s more interesting, since she’s open-minded and interviews well as an aspiring journalist. One interview features local astronomers talking about how they think the lights were flares.

Mark just feels like he’s kind-of there, since he has a car. He’s a friend but he’s almost has no dimension. The little-known actors aren’t memorable, but they do serviceable jobs. Chelsea Lopez as Ashley brings some charm.

The cinematography is stronger in Sophie’s documentary, but her film is way less interesting. Her documentary feels distinctly incomplete even when she has a chance to make an ending, and the film doesn’t execute.

It’s also silly that she waits 20 years to investigate the disappearance, and like the documentary, this feels like it’s made a few years too late, especially after the release of The Phoenix Incident in 2015 (a docu-drama about the real-life disappearances). It’s especially late since Adam Wingard released Blair Witch last year, and this is essentially a carbon copy of The Blair Witch Project mixed with a some of The X-Files.

The film’s a puzzle as they try to explain what happened to these 17-year-olds. The mystery’s never been solved because they stopped filming at one point. It’s the one video that promises something happening, as most of the videos are uneventful. Sometimes they investigate the Lights, but other times they just go for a hike hoping something will happen.

The videos are amateurishly shot and Josh annoyingly can never keep the camera on the action, and it’s hard to see what’s going on. The camera’s consistently shaky, but the visual effects are cool when we see it long enough. The filmmakers make it look like the videos were filmed in 1997. It has a VHS quality, and it adds realism.

The horror relies on psychological aspects of paranoia, lots of bright lights and loud noises instead of jump scares, which makes it refreshing. In that way, it does something different from most found-footage films, and part of the reason why I’m giving it a passing score.

The tension is palpable because of chilling sound design. It feels more like freaky, sci-fi scares than anything and when I’m talking about horror, it’s only existent in the film’s final 15-20 minutes when we get the last piece of the puzzle. It’s a good finale.

The first hour has 15 minutes of interesting material, but it’s boring and not scary. Since only a fraction of this is thrilling, it doesn’t work as a feature film. It would be better as a 30-minute segment in an anthology franchise like V/H/S because there’s not enough material here, and Josh’s sister making a documentary in the present day often feels like filler. Director Justin Barber fleshes it out to about 80 minutes and it doesn’t feel like a well-rounded feature. The last piece of the puzzle is the only good part. Otherwise, Phoenix Forgotten is already fading from my memory.

Score: 50/100

Advertisements

V/H/S/2 (2013)

VHS 2Released: June 6, 2013. Directed by: Various including Adam Wingard, Gareth Evans. Starring: Kelsey Abbott, Adam Wingard, Mindy Robinson. Runtime: 96 min.

With hearing that V/H/S/2 is stronger than its predecessor, my expectations were slightly higher. What a mistake that was! While this film improves a few aspects over its predecessor, the general quality is worse. It improves on its frame narrative by giving us a stronger and more controlled segment called “Tape 49,” that furthers the mythology of the mysterious VHS tapes. It’s a bit similar to The Ring, if you ask me. The story that ties the segments together is that these two private investigators are looking into the disappearance of a woman’s son. One private eye portrayed by Kelsey Abbott is really cute. The other is a bit of a slime who makes some extra cash by scams; he films married men sleeping with women (Mindy Robinson for her hotness, but she’s been about 107 films and TV shows since 2012… So, porn star numbers, or just random hooker roles, amirite?) and then threatening to send them to the wife of the husband. These characters in the frame narrative get more character development this time around.

I think a good thing about the film is that the runtime has been shortened by twenty minutes. This time there’s only four segments and then one frame narrative that also works as an okay segment. “Tape 49” is okay, a little scary at times, and it’s more focused than the frame narrative of the previous film, but it’s still nothing special.

I’ll talk about the segments I don’t like very much first. The second main segment in the film is called “A Ride in the Park” and concerns a man on a bike ride, and goriness follows. This film shows an interesting POV that allows to see first-hand a transformation into one of horror’s most beloved creature: a zombie. Let the film’s obsession with zombies begin. The segment offers an interesting approach, but I think it’s largely boring. It makes me think twice about having a birthday party in the forest, but it’s just all lame and not scary.

The final segment is also nothing special. It’s set at a slumber party that gets visited by aliens. The “creature” effects are well-done, perhaps all-too-traditional, but still creepy. The cinematography in this one truly takes the viewers out of the experience, as far as I’m concerned, even for found-footage standards. It just makes it difficult to see what’s going on. This also a strange mix of a boring approach to film-making, and a freaky one. The characters are completely unimpressive and it’s all a bit perverted, at times.

There’s one segment called “Phase I Clinical Trials” that is actually pretty good. There’s one short scene in it that isn’t that great, but that’s about it. I think the foreshadowing is well done and the camera angles are great. The perspective is from a man’s eye transplant, because he lost it in a car crash. The perspective is similar to that of “Amateur Night” of the first film. There’s a recording device in the character’s electronic eye. The way things pan out makes me think twice of getting a transplant. The premise reminds me of an episode of the children’s TV show Are You Afraid of the Dark? where a pair of glasses allows the user to see shadows from a different dimension. It’s not the same thing as this, and it’s certainly R-rated here, but I think it has some similarities.

My favourite segment is “Safe Haven.” Well, the first time I watched it was an on-line viewing and there weren’t any subtitles during a segment where Indonesian is the main language (it’s co-directed by director of The Raid: Redemption, Gareth Evans); so do yourselves a favour and don’t watch this on-line, because it’s difficult to find a video with subtitles. But with subtitles, it’s awesome – and I think it helps to watch this segment twice, because I’m still trying to piece together some of the film’s aspects that, at the time seems irrelevant, but ties into the story well. That’s an effective aspect to cinema, and the segment’s very smart. This one has some awesome gore and some effective scares. The basic premise is a suicide cult taken to the extremes in horror. Ti West’s The Sacrament handles a perspective on the People’s Temple aspect, and this handles some suicide cult aspects just as well. The Father loses his ever-loving mind. It seems to me it’s a suicide cult taken to the true extremes, with hinted layers of pedophilia It’s all pretty interesting and completely bat, sh*t, crazy. I won’t spoil any more. It’s just awesome cinema.

The first film, I liked four out of six segments; but here, I really only like two out of the five. The frame narrative is okay, and even though this has a more brief runtime and boasts more control, the general quality of the segments is much weaker. At least the segments that I do like are pretty great. Overall, this is a disappointingly weak sequel.

Score55/100

 

V/H/S (2012)

VHSReleased: September 6, 2012. Directed by: Various (including Ti West, Adam Wingard). Starring: Adam Wingard, Joe Swanberg, Helen Rogers. Runtime: 116 min.

V/H/S is a found-footage anthology film featuring five main short films built around a frame narrative, that also works as its own short film experienced in snippets. As with most found-footage films, the cinematography is all over the place, but at least the shaky cam shots are well-edited. How the filmmakers make an excuse for taking the found-footage approach, meaning the reason why the characters are using hand-held cameras, are unique. In one segment, the story is shown from a main character’s glasses that have a hidden camera in them; in others they’re just documenting experiences; and one uses a Skype approach.

I’ll tell you a bit about each segment answering if they’re scary or not, but I’ll try not to spoil too much – it’s just the basics, really. The film opens with a gang of unlikable hoodlums wreaking havoc upon unsuspecting citizens and ugly old buildings. They are tasked by an unknown third party to enter a house and recover a rare VHS tape (apparently we’re living in the 1990s), but in order to find the correct one they have to watch the footage on the tapes, because there’s unfortunately no title on any of them saying “It’s this one!” This segment is the one experienced in short snippets; it’s not very interesting or scary, but having a frame narrative is better than not having one at all, because it gives the appearance that the film is more focused.

Onto the segment that made me scream like a little schoolgirl at a drive-in. Well, not really, but I did have to turn it off three times and catch my cool the first time I tried watching this film. This segment, called “Amateur Night,” follows a group of teens who go out to a party to pick up women. The main guy named Shane has the glasses that captures everything on video. It seems to me that he is doing it so he can either watch his sex film for his personal pleasure or just sell it if she’s hot enough, or just post it on the internet. These guys are simply a bunch of drunk college kids trying to get lucky, but the point-of-view is intriguing. The plot basically teaches me that I shouldn’t pick up women from bars who have strange feet or only say “I like you.” Kudos to the actress and the special effects in this segment. This segment is awesome and truly scary (in my eyes, at least), but I doubt I’ll re-watch it because it’s really too freaky for me and experiencing it twice is enough. Definitely one of the best segments and a really good fifteen minutes (estimated) of cinema.

The second segment is called “Second Honeymoon” and is directed by Ti West. This one is a simple short with a boring build-up, okay characters, an awkward chemistry and no great pay-off. It’s not very smart and West largely handles this dully and it’s not scary at all. The only other works by West I’m familiar with are his awful short segment in The ABCs of Death, the god-awful Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (I should review that soon), and his great film that premiered at TIFF in September, The Sacrament. Apparently he’s not good at directing or writing shorts at all, because this one isn’t impressive.

The third segment is a mysterious one called “Tuesday the 17th”; it’s gory and fun and seems to promise a simple camping getaway premise. The foreshadowing is well done, leading up to an okay pay-off. The execution by writer/director Glenn McQuaid is pretty good. It’s about as scary as a regular slasher flick, which is to say it’s more thrilling then terrifying.

v_h_s-06The fourth segment is my favourite. It’s freaky and ultimately quite scary. It’s not as scary as the first segment, but it’s entertaining and has an interesting ending. It’s effective during its brief runtime. I like the camera angles, too, where the webcam films whatever is happening – and there are two cameras, one capturing what’s happening on Emily’s side, and what is happening on her boyfriend’s side (as pictured above). Kudos to the Emily character (portrayed by Helen Rogers) for staying in a creepy and potentially haunted apartment for so long. Rogers is a cute actress who captures paranoia well; and she strikes me as an older-looking and brunette version of Chloë Grace Moretz.

The final segment is a haunted house premise (like the  previous segment), where a few party animals walk into a house where a party is supposed to be happening. Craziness follows and I think the execution is pretty good. It doesn’t make the most sense or gets fully explained, but it’s creative. Some static in the cinematography adds an unsettling layer. It’s at least much scarier than Ti West’s attempt.

When I like four out of six segments, I think it’s a mild success. This is largely an experimental film, and while the cinematography is overall weak, it’s an enjoyable horror experience. Another weak aspect are the characters who really suck, but keep in mind there’s no time for development because of the limited time for each segment. The segments range from not scary at all to very scary, but I think there’s at least one or two segments most horror fans will like; besides, if you don’t like one segment, you might like the next.

Score60/100

Question: What was your favourite segment?

The ABCs of Death (2013)

abcs of deathReleased: March 8, 2013. Directed by: Various including Angela Bettis, Ti West and Ben Wheatley. Starring: Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Iván González, Kyra Zagorsky. Runtime: 129 min.

Anthology films are a series of shorts compiled together, and the only thing they have in common is the genre they portray. A few anthology films from 2013 include this, Movie 43 and V/H/S/ 2 and since two of the three I’ve seen (this, The ABCs of Death, and M43) have been awful, state just how crappy anthology films can be. Movie 43 is a crappy compilation of crappy comedies, which are very rarely funny; ABCs is a lazy compilation of 26 chapters chronicling the vicious wonder and brutal beauty of death. The commonplace for the segments in this film it that someone dies in all of them (well, for the most part oddly), the majority of them are dull, and they’re supposedly trying to portray the horror genre. The thing is, not one is scary. They just exploit violence and there’s just a whole lot of blood.

I don’t have much of a problem with violence in cinema when it’s done well; and I really don’t mind gore. I like them both in good movies. This anthology flick is just stupid as anything, and there’s not even a story that ties them all together – V/H/S/ at least has the courtesy to feature a frame narrative. The poster makes it seem like maybe Death himself is reading a bunch of short tales to a weird little baby, but sadly we don’t get anything like that. Instead each short gets separated by a simple fade to a red background with those alphabet blocks kids play with saying something like “A is for…,” and then on to the next one. Anyway, a lot of these are original, and a good change of pace from the usual horror fare, but I couldn’t get into this. But almost every short film in this is very bizarre, and there’s only about five okay shorts, and one really good one.

They are ‘Q’, a mildly clever short where a pair of directors discuss what their sketch is going to be for such a hard letter. They discuss how they’ll stand out, but it’s hard for any of these sketches to stand out because a lot are awful. One actually good sketch is for the letter ‘S’, which is a lot of fun. Mind you, not scary, but it has a really cool atmosphere with some great metaphors and it’s actually really entertaining. It’s the only enjoyable sketch in my eyes. Again, it doesn’t work as a horror sketch – it’s more like an actioner that has hot babes and fast carsThe short film’s plots are mostly dumb, but at least they get to the point quickly; but they have to, each segment is only about 4.96 minutes each on average. The shortest is one called “Gravity,” and it’s the only time I’ve ever wanted to see Sandra Bullock bumping into stuff for a few minutes instead. The one in consideration features POV-style cinematography, which is sometimes a nice change of pace. There’s another point-of-view sketch that’s pretty crappy, too. The one for the letter ‘D’ is told completely in slow motion and is almost entirely pointless, the slow motion just renders it completely empty of any sort-of emotion. It looks good, but it’s just very empty.

One other okay sketch is the death for the letter ‘T,’ which is mildly entertaining (still not scary, mind you) and memorable because it’s told in a cheap-looking claymation. I mean, if I ever take acid and then everything turns into claymation, I’ll stay away from toilets. There’s one sketch that is actually fun, strange as anything because the characters are in animal costumes it seems, but it’s a sort-of fun R-rated Tex Avery battle of sorts during World War Two. It’s for the letter ‘H,’ by the way, but guessing the word might be a fun challenge, so I won’t reveal it. There’s one simplistic but utterly stupid one called “Klutz,” where, to express its stupidity, I’m just going to spoil it. The woman basically dies by the metaphorical hands of a pesky piece of poop that is too stubborn to be flushed down the toilet, and instead teases the woman, sticks to the ceiling, and when she looks on the ground for it, launches itself into her ass and comes out of her mouth, killing her. Seriously, what the f$%k? The animated sketch is so, so awful. The sketch for ‘F’ is equally bad. A few thoughts on the worst sketches: the one for the letter ‘L’ is just disgusting and twisted; the sketch for the letter ‘X’ is a sort-of social commentary of media influence, but I don’t think people are this cruel, at least in my experiences, and it’s a bit too insane for me, but gore lovers will adore this; and the sketch for the letter ‘P’ is a sad story that shows how far someone will go to make money when they’re under pressure, but the finale is heartbreakingly despicable. Moving on…

I think the idea that the producers thought this would be scary is because the premise of death is scary to many people. I’m scared of death, but this is never thrilling or scary – but a lot of this is awful, with only a few decent sketches, and some of them that use an artistic approach to filmmaking don’t make a lick of sense. It’s a shame that a fair deal of the half-decent to bearable sketches come in the second half of the alphabet, because by that time, I found myself counting how many letters are left and checking my phone constantly for how much time remained. This is just an exhausting experience. It might be fun for the horror movie buff who wants something different from mainstream horror, and I think that’s the point.

The thing is, a lot of it isn’t that well-made (but each director from around the world is working on a budget of $5000), and this ends up being less enjoyable than regular horror fare. Though, for those who want to see a bunch of different ways to die, many bland and gory, and a few really twisted, watch it if you must. But this is just one of the weirdest films I’ve ever seen. This one is just too twisted and unenjoyable for me, and it simply isn’t very thrilling or scary. Cringe-worthy at times, but something I’m trying to figure out is, could cringing at a horror film truly be considered good horror? At least in this case, I say no. This one’s definitely not for the mainstream audience, so they should just stick to the 1000 Ways to Die TV show. I also hope in the sequel, the directors remember to make their material scary. Keep the same originality and sometimes twisted material, but make it scary, please.

Score: 25/100