Tag Archives: haunted house movies

Wishful Thinking

The Djinn

by Hope Madden

There is something to be said for films that do a lot with very little. The ability to awaken the imagination without the help of a big budget, multiple locations, a giant cast or too much in the way of FX is a credit to filmmakers.

And hell, David Charbonier and Justin Powell’s The Djinn does most of it without dialog.

Dylan Jacobs (Ezra Dewey) and his dad (Rob Brownstein) have just moved into a new apartment. There’s a recent tragedy in their past, but that’s not the only reason Dad’s a little hesitant to go to his shift at the radio station. Dylan is mute and maybe he needs another day or two in the apartment to be truly safe on his own.

Ignoring his instincts, Dad leaves for work. For the balance of the film, we’re alone in the apartment with Dylan and the demon he innocently summons trying to regain his voice.

The Djinn succeeds on the strength of its young lead, who carries every scene without benefit of dialog. Star of the filmmakers’ 2020 horror tale The Boy Behind the Door, Dewey’s emotional performance is enough to keep you compelled for the film’s brisk run time.

Charbonier and Powell have other tricks up their sleeve to elevate their story. Cinematographer Julian Estrada, for one, who gives the impression that the apartment itself is watching the boy. Setting the film in 1988 frees the filmmakers up from recent tech that simplifies communication, which feels a tad like a cheat but does amplify a creepy sense of helplessness.

Not everything works, though. The filmmakers rely too heavily on music stabs and jumps, the soft rock soundtrack is curious, and a handful of tropes—the asthma inhaler, in particular—give the film a less-than-inspired feel.

But plenty of tense moments and creepy images punctuate the heartbreaking, age-old cautionary tale about getting what you wish for.

Casa de los Muertos

32 Malasaña Street

by Hope Madden

What is it about haunted houses that always sucker in big families? We saw it in The Conjuring and The Amityville Horror before it. And now another big old clan is about to regret that bargain dream house over at 32 Malasaña Street.

Albert Pintó’s nightmare follows the Olmedos, who take their two teenagers, their 5-year-old, an aging grandfather, and their shame to Madrid, leaving the country and their old lives behind. But haunted houses smell shame and secrets, don’t the Olmedos know that?

Pintó creates a dreadful, dreamy quality to the haunting, every shot’s framing and color, light and shadow taking on a painterly quality. He conjures a mood, a vintage era where hope and freedom bumped up against tradition and oppression.

The film is set in 1976, and like those other films of dream homes gone wrong, Malasaña creates concrete tension. The first response to any haunting is to just get the F out, but where are you supposed to take three kids and an elderly father? Where’s abuela supposed to plug in his C-Pap? The “down to our last penny and nowhere to go” vibe feels authentic under these circumstances.

But Pintó seems out to do more with the size of the family than simply convince you that thre’s nowhere to go. 17-year-old Amparo (Begoña Vargas) dreams of becoming a flight attendant, of flying up and away from this life, but the house itself is the metaphor for the family as a trap.

Faith and culture beget big families and poverty, and old-fashioned thinking creates monsters.

Where Pintó takes the metaphor is less inspired than it might be. Troublingly, the filmmaker’s throwback vibe retains that old horror trope of the physically disabled character as conduit to the supernatural, and enlightened lip service can’t excuse the way the film falls back on cliches of the monstrous “other.”

32 Malasaña Street sets complicated characters in motion within a familiar world. It just doesn’t use them to tell us anything new.

Flip or Flop

Girl on the Third Floor

by Hope Madden

DIY Don is probably not a nickname Don Koch (C.M. Punk, aka Phil Brooks) has ever heard. Nonetheless, he has some free time, a pregnant wife in the city (Trieste Kelly Dunn) and a bruised ego, so he undertakes the restoration of the new suburban fixer upper on his own.

He has no idea what he’s up against.

The feature directing debut of longtime indie horror producer Travis Stevens (Cheap Thrills, We Are Still Here, Starry Eyes), Girl on the Third Floor takes the haunted house theme in directions that are both toxic and masculine.

So did The Amityville Horror, but Stevens and his team of writers (Trent Haaga, Paul Johnstone and Ben Parker) aren’t concerned with a good man infected by a bad house.   

Stevens most impresses in lensing the film. Phil and cast regularly look directly into the camera to deliver lines or just to ask WTF? as goo and other assorted nastiness tumble and/or ooze from walls. It’s as if the audience has the house’s point of view, and since the majority of the film is “house versus Don” (and Don is clearly an asshole), it’s an intriguing and suitable perspective to take.

So the haunted house is, in fact, the protagonist in this haunted house flick. Nice.

In another wise and satisfying move, Stevens underscores the hero’s star qualities with beautiful, wide interior shots that emphasize the house’s elegant and forbidding nature while appearing to trap the ever-foregrounded Don.

In his first film, WWE performer Punk mainly impresses or at least holds his own, shouldering at least 50% of the film entirely alone. Well, him, some power tools, a handful of marbles, a lot of ejaculate—still, it’s mainly Punk.

Stevens’s message is not entirely fresh, and the camera that ogles Dunn as well as co-star Sarah Brooks suggests the film may not be as woke as it pretends to be. (Haaga has penned some great horror flicks, but his Deadgirl confirms that a feminist he is not.)

Like any good haunted house movie—The Haunting, The Innocents, The Shining, even the Stevens-produced We Are Still Here, where the horror was in the basement rather than the third floor—it’s the unsettling, otherworldly images and mystery that bring chills. Third Floor makes the mistake of the third act exposition, revealing the source of the mystery all Scooby Doo like.

It’s a too-tidy end to a decent spook show—nothing especially scary or daring or original, but an atmospheric thriller that looks good and entertains.

Old Money, Old Problems

The Little Stranger

by Hope Madden

There were a lot of reasons to be excited about The Little Stranger.

The film is director Lenny Abrahamson’s follow up to his staggeringly wonderful 2015 film Room. It stars three of the most solid character actors you will find (whether you know the names or not): Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson and Will Poulter.

Who else? Oh, yes, Charlotte Rampling, who’s been a miracle of understated power since the mid-Sixties.

On top of all that, it may (or may not) be a period British ghost story, and who doesn’t dig that?

But something’s gone terribly wrong with The Little Stranger.

It looks stunning. Abrahamson’s camera captures postcard quality images of spooky old mansion quarters, lonesome countrysides, sparse bachelor apartments.

Gleeson’s performance is wonderful: restrained and proper to a degree that suits this particular character. Poulter (who is a marvelous and amazingly versatile actor) is underused, as is Rampling, although she cooly delivers enough decisive lines to make an impression.
Performances, too, are picture-perfect.

Wilson impresses most as Caroline Ayres, the put-upon sister in an old-money family that’s seen its share of heartache. She’s being courted, so to speak, by reserved country doctor Faraday (Gleeson), while she helps to care for her badly injured (inside and out) WWII veteran brother Roddy (Poulter), quietly helping him manage his responsibilities to the estate.

Caroline longs to be free. Longing is maybe the most palpable theme in the film, along with the underlying nod to classism. Unfortunately, by Act 3, you’ll be longing for some action of any kind.

Abrahamson’s film, adapted from Sarah Waters’s novel by screenwriter Lucinda Coxon (The Danish Girl), moves at an iceberg’s pace. Though the bumps, burns and bruises in the night are developed with the proper haunted house atmosphere, the resolution is so underdeveloped and slow in coming that the film cannot help but disappoint.

The reveal makes sense to a degree, and bravo to Abrahamson for expecting audiences to have paid enough attention to earlier dialog that we might fathom the conclusion. At the same time, with too much thought, that reveal can fall apart. So, if you’re not paying attention you will have no idea what just happened. Pay too much attention and the mystery’s resolution will disintegrate on you.

It’s unfortunate because there is an awful lot of talent and aesthetic going to waste here.

Day 26: The Orphanage

The Orphanage (2007)

Some of the world’s best horror output comes from distant lands – like this gem from Spain.

Laura (Belén Rueda) and her husband reopen the orphanage where she grew up, with the goal of running a house for children with special needs – children like her adopted son Simón, who is HIV positive. But Simón’s new imaginary friends worry Laura, and when he disappears, it looks like she may be imagining things herself.

This may seem like a well worn tale at first glance: Is the distraught mother losing her mind, as those around her assume, or is something supernatural afoot? But it’s director Juan Antonio Bayona’s understated approach, along with Rueda’s measured performance and Óscar Faura’s superb cinematography, that buoy the film above the ordinary ghost story.

A scary movie can be elevated beyond measure by a masterful score and an artful camera. Because Bayona keeps the score and all ambient noise to a minimum, allowing the quiet to fill the scenes, he develops a truly haunting atmosphere. Faura captures the eerie beauty of the stately orphanage, but does it in a way that always suggests someone is watching. The effect is never heavy handed, but effortlessly eerie.

The Orphanage treads familiar ground, employing such iconic genre images as the lighthouse, scary dolls, scarecrows, a misshapen child – not to mention the many and varied things that go bump in the night – but it does so with an unusual integrity. Creepy images from early in the film are effectively replayed in the third act to punctuate the very real sense of dread Bayona creates throughout the film. While most of the horror is built with slow, spectral dread, there are a couple of outright shocks to keep the audience guessing.

One of the film’s great successes is its ability to take seriously both the logical, real world story line, and the supernatural one.

Screenwriter Sergio Sánchez doesn’t shortchange his characters or the audience by dismissing Laura’s anguished state of mind, or by neglecting the shadowy side of his tale. The Orphanage is reminiscent of producer Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, as well as The Others, and even of the classic The Innocents.

The Orphanage has more than the unsettling spectral images of children in common with these films; it boasts a sustaining, powerful female performance. Rueda carries the film with a restrained urgency – hysterical only when necessary, focused at all times, and absolutely committed to this character, who may or may not be seeing ghosts.

A good ghost story is hard to find. Apparently you have to look in Spain.

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