Paranormal Activity : The Ghost Dimension  (2015)    46/100

Rating :   46/100                                                                       88 Min        15

Could have been one of the better instalments in the Paranormal Activity horror franchise, alas it’s just rubbish again, although thankfully it’s been announced as the last one they’ll do despite ironically setting up a decent plot thread for sequels. Following on from the previous ‘The Marked Ones‘, this is film number six and to be honest I wasn’t especially aware, despite having seen them all, that the series features the same characters in different time frames and locations, alarmingly highlighting the ubiquitous poor scripting. Here, some new cannon fodder are introduced, in a modern setting of 2013, who find recordings of the anchors for the overarching plot – sisters Katie and Kristi Ray, shortly after the events of part 3 while they were still kids, and an eerie conduit between the past and present is instigated by a malevolent spirit that plagues the new family of three, plus their two friends that are staying over to make up the numbers.

The basic story is actually fine and builds up something potentially interesting with people that are almost likeable for this kind of film – indeed, the rather attractive wife (Brit Shaw) comes onscreen to enliven things slightly before a distinct moment of ‘Jesus Christ!’ as her even hotter friend (Olivia Taylor Dudley), looking like a young, petite and very well endowed Patricia Arquette, saunters into shot – but precious little is made of them, either as characters, plot devices or eye candy.

Instead, the film suffers the same repetitive fate as its predecessors wherein the screenplay sets up various set-piece scares, and everything else in-between makes no sense, such as adults filming their daughter being visited by evil spirits in the night rather than really doing anything about it, and it’s nigh on impossible for a film to pull off being scary and dumb at the same time. Also with Chris J. Murray, Dan Gill and Ivy George as the youngster in need of better parents.

The Visit  (2015)    51/100

Rating :   51/100                                                                       94 Min        15

M. Night Shyamalan writes, directs and produces his attempt at the handheld horror genre with occasional success, as Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are shunted off to visit their grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) in their mother’s home town – minus the mother (Kathryn Hahn) though as she apparently did something heinous to them when she ran off with their father, who eventually ran off with someone else and hasn’t been seen since. The only problem is the grandparents are psychos and scare the living shit out of the kids, who are then determined to find out exactly what their mother did to them that was so bad.

In essence, Shyamalan has principally written a decent story, if not a screenplay, for the film but the delivery lacks any real tension – the kids are by turns likeable, and we see the after-effects of their parents divorce on them psychologically which was a rare nice touch for the genre, but then they are also really irritating; Tyler, for example, tries his hand at rapping and he’s no good, to put it lightly, but there are nonetheless three lengthy takes of him giving it a go. Perhaps worst of all, the film’s climactic moment is delivered with no real force whatsoever all but ruining it, and, well, it’s sandwiched between a lot of nonsense in terms of the regular scares together with the mere occasional moment of amusement, as the film continually threatens to ramp up both the comedy and the horror, and then simply doesn’t. Shyamalan reportedly had a lot of trouble editing the film as the final product kept flitting radically between genres – kind of suggests he didn’t really know what he was trying to do in the first place though …

The Gallows  (2015)    35/100

Rating :   35/100                                                                       81 Min        15

Buddies Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing both wrote and directed this and one hopes they had a good time in the process as it’s highly unlikely anyone else is going to whilst watching their final product – a handheld horror film that couldn’t be any less artful if it tried. All set in a high school where a school play, ‘The Gallows’, went tragically awry in the nineties and one of the performers ended up actually being hung. Seeming to forget this incident, the school decide to put on the same play again in the present day, and when four of the kids get stuck inside the building late at night, three of them having been intent on sabotaging the sets because they’re little shits, questions of supernatural evil and the spirit of the deceased haunting the school begin to arise …

It doesn’t bode well for a handheld film when the person mostly behind the camera is incredibly annoying, and here he is joined by the obligatory couple of girls with sweaty uplifted cleavages and scares no more original than a camera looking one way before turning around and back again to reveal something new in view of the lens – at one point the camera sits by itself at rest for a moment and then one of the main characters purposefully jumps in front of it to surprise the audience. That’s the level of entertainment you’re looking at here. The story and concept aren’t completely terrible but what they’ve done with it, simply put, is. Starring Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown, Ryan Shoos and Cassidy Gifford as the central four that get mired in bad acting and screenwriting.

This song isn’t in the film, but I’ve had it in my head since watching it nonetheless. And now you can too ….

As Above, So Below  (2014)    67/100

Rating :   67/100                                                                       93 Min        15

A handheld genre horror film with marvellous use of location shots and with a real sustained feeling of claustrophobia throughout. Every now and then you come across a film that details something in the real world and you think to yourself, ‘why have I never heard about this before?’, and for The Red Dragon this was precisely the case here as a group of youngsters head down into the Parisian Catacombs, which apparently spread for many, many miles under the City of Lights and exist as the final resting place for millions of her residents, adapted from old stone mines in the late eighteenth century as a solution to the lack of graveyard space in the city, and now one of the fourteen City of Paris Museums that constitute the Paris Musées.

The story follows the exploits of Scarlett (Perditta Weeks), the beautiful English rose (although Weeks is actually Welsh I should point out) whose father was obsessed with finding the Philosopher’s Stone – an obsession that may have driven him to suicide. She follows in his footsteps quite convinced that legendary alchemist Nicolas Flamel not only had possession of the stone, but also left clues for others to follow and find its location. Legend has it the stone can turn lead into gold but also heal the most grievous of wounds (it can, I posses it), and of course both it and Flamel were immortalised in the public imagination by J.K.Rowling in the first of her Harry Potter novels. What ensues has a strong treasure hunt feel to it, and in fact the film is more successful in this regard than, for example, either of the Tomb Raider films.

Descending underground leads to some very, very uncomfortable scenes and unusually for this type of film none of the characters are particularly annoying, where it does falter is in the opening segment which is notably weak, and later on when more supernatural elements come into play – all of which were done reasonably well, it’s just that they are also reasonably traditional and you kind of wish for that final spark that would really make this into something special. As it is, this is a uniquely polished production with moments of real intensity and at the same time one that isn’t simply content with trying to torment its audience like most of its contemporaries do, instead it plays out like a cross between ‘The Goonies’ (85) and ‘The Descent’ (05), producing a final concoction that is just as memorable in its own right.

Into the Storm  (2014)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                       89 Min        12A

Who doesn’t like a good disaster film? If for no other reason than one can sit and enjoy it thinking ‘thank fuck I am not there right now’, and indeed real life potential perils can often be more terrifying than anything within the domain of the horror genre. This follows a group of storm chasers (à la ‘Twister’ 96, in fact I’m pretty sure you can hear the voice of Bill Paxton as the weather man at one point) as they descend on the small town of Silverton Oklahoma, and although the weather is taken to extremes it is entirely justified by global conditions, like Katrina as they mention, regularly going to pot. Even in the UK we just had the remains of hurricane Bertha hit our shores for unseasonally windy and wet conditions, completely ruining The Red Dragon’s ultimate frisbee season, and in fact coming out of the cinema after this there were booming, ominous peals of thunder echoing overhead, which, naturally, is just what you want after seeing this. Indeed, Britain has one of the highest numbers of tornadoes in the world relative to its land area – though they’re mostly just totty little rubbish ones that don’t do anything, not withstanding the twister that obliterated parts of Birmingham last decade.

This is actually part of the handheld camera genre, for the most part, but they have made a really good job of it compared to many of their contemporaries, moving things along quickly and without irritating the audience with pointless explanations for cameras and poor viewing quality. The action flits between the professionals, some amateur YouTube daredevils, and a father with his two sons due to film the highschool graduation ceremony until one of them bunks off to help a local girl with her own project – and when you see the girl in question (Alycia Debnam Carey) you will understand why. Overall, the effects are dramatically immersive and the tension feels suitably real, there are no Oscar worthy moments but the ensemble cast (of whom probably Richard Armitage and Matt Walsh are the most recognisable faces) make it seem believable. It kind of feels like a ‘Twister’ reboot, but nonetheless it is good fun and with the technological advances since then it also stands as an improvement on some of those late nineties waymarks that the filmmakers were no doubt inspired by.

Earth to Echo  (2014)    57/100

Rating :   57/100                                                                       91 Min        PG

The handheld genre finds its way into the family film market here, with very similar results to previous experiments with it: contrivances to always have multiple cameras on the go (bizarrely including a hidden camera in one of the kid’s specs, which seems like a particularly nifty bit of kit for them to have access to) and fairly irritating central performances as they constantly try to sound excited, telling us we should be too. The plot has us following three young boys (played by Teo Halm, Reese Hartwig and X-Factor contestant Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley) around on their bikes as they trace a mysterious map that has appeared on their phones – a map which leads to the discovery of a small alien, Echo, that they will try to help collect the fragmented bits of his spacecraft so he (or she I suppose, its sexual organs are not noticeably examined) can go home before some evil ADULTS find it, play football with it and dismember it.

Echo has no real personality, it essentially looks really cute and can beep once for yes and twice for no, and that’s it, so the focus is on the adventure of the kids with at least an attempt to explore the strength of the bond between them, but mainly just watching them track down things and trying to avoid capture, with the very typical fantasy of the hot uptight girl from school (Ella Wahlestedt) somehow getting involved and coming along with them . For kids around the age of the main characters (fourteen?) it might be quite good, but for anyone else it’s a far cry from E.T. (82). One of them learns to drive a car in, literally, ten seconds. That’s the sort of level of production and believability you’re looking at here.

Devil’s Due  (2014)    0/100

Rating :   0/100           COMPLETE INCINERATION           89 Min        15

Following in the tradition of what Blumhouse productions have set in motion with their Paranormal Activity franchise, although here not connected with that company, this is just another abysmal take on the handheld, or ‘found footage’, horror genre. Although Blair Witch did kick off the whole racket back in 99, this particular wave of films is designed with a very, very twisted core idea using the technology to in many ways assault the viewers psyche, with sudden jumps and the mixing of real footage with what are designed to be terrifying images. The Red Dragon coins this the ‘Battery’ genre, where as well as the standard use of batteries your visual and audio experience is reduced to being hit repeatedly with shocks and screeches, sudden jumps, and prolonged shots where you know a jump is coming and you just have to wait for it.

It doesn’t sound all that different from the horror genre in general over the decades, but there is a big cinematic difference and the end result is simply a sickening experience on a par with ‘Torture Porn’, and this kind of filmmaking is just about the most rudimentary and easiest to create. Literally anyone can make this stuff, and the team behind this have barely bothered at all with believable characters or a story, with the focus being on a young couple who get hoodwinked by a cabbie into going to a party with him where they get drugged and the girl impregnated by some kind of demon and the offspring starts to twist the young girl’s being into a creature of evil, whilst her partner figures out what’s going on and precedes to do very little about it except stand in the right places for the jumps to arrive.

Same old, same old – to compare this style of film with one of value we have ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (68) which has essentially the same storyline (and also has Mia Farrow’s unconscious character raped by Satan at the bequest of her husband, played by John Cassavetes, and to explain her bruises the next day he says something like ‘Oh yeah, you passed out so I just used you anyway’, not exactly an elaborate excuse) and is revered as a classic, it’s disturbing but watchable. I don’t believe any human being could get anything positive out of this sort of trash which is becoming ever more frequent at the cinema, to the point where I may simply start drawing a line and not even bothering to watch future releases, there really is no point.

Paranormal Activity : The Marked Ones  (2014)    43/100

Rating :   43/100                                                                       84 Min        15

Grooooooan. Yet another stale and regurgitated horror film from Blum Productions in the Paranormal Activity series, this time swapping surveillance cameras for handheld ones and revolving around the story arc of certain people being chosen for demonic possession by a coven of Satan worshippers and dark magic practitioners. The cameras are held by three friends, one of whom has been chosen to have his brain turned to mush by a demon, but not before he subjects us to terrible camera work and predictable jump moments. There’s a semblance of a story, but not much else going on here.

Rec 2  (2009)    67/100

Rating :   67/100                                                                       85 Min        18

The 2009 sequel to 07’s wonderful Spanish handheld horror film ‘Rec’ (which was given an American makeover in 2008 with ‘Quarantine’, which was also very good). The original featured a documentary crew embedding themselves in a Barcelona fire station and tagging along with the response to an emergency call. Little did they know they would be entombed within a building whose inhabitants were all turning into flesh eating zombies….

Rec 2 picks up exactly where the first one ended, with the camera inside a vehicle taking a military Swat Team to the cordoned off infested building. They haven’t been fully briefed on exactly what they can expect to be confronted by, so the film does suffer a little from the inevitable, ‘What the fuck? What the fucking fuck? You mean they’re freaking zombies?! Like brain eating freaking fracking zombies?!’, ‘Yup’, ‘Fucking shit man!! Wait, what’s tha…Aaaaaargh!’, ‘Well now that was pointless explaining to you, wasn’t it.’

The story behind what’s going on is expanded upon a little, and the unholy nature of the zombification process, or rather the prospect that there may be a cure or reversal, genuinely makes some of the brutality a little difficult to watch. Not as taught as the original, but still pretty good and justifying the making of a third released in 2012, and the announcement of a fourth and concluding chapter, expected toward the end of this year. The original writing/directing team of Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza returned to helm the sequel, this time joined by Manu Díez for the screenplay instead of Luiso Berdejo.

End of Watch  (2012)    59/100

Rating :   59/100                                                                     109 Min        15

From writer/director David Ayer, this is very much the opposite of his 2005 flick ‘Harsh Times’, and stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as two LAPD patrol men buddying up and busting crime in downtown Los Angeles, ‘district 13′, and it opens with a pretty awesome rallying call in the form of a voice-over from Gyllenhaal as their squad car hones in on a couple of gangbangers. Initially, the whole film is shot as a largely handheld camera piece, with our view switching between pinhole cameras on the officers’ uniforms, Gyllenhall’s handheld, and the camera on their vehicle. This creates a major problem with the film, as with others in the genre, as the beginning quickly becomes ‘end of ability to watch’ with shaky cam taken to extremes and time wasted justifying and talking about the various cameras. It’s not necessary to contain the footage of these films within the confines of the characters’ own photography equipment, the viewer should be in mind at all times and there is no reason at all not to switch between the handhelds and more traditional views. Eventually, the director seems to come to the same conclusion and ditches some of the handheld footage, which actually makes all the shaky use from before fairly pointless.

As the action begins to ramp up things get much more interesting. It’s where this style of filmmaking can be really effective, as we experience first hand the thrills and horrors of their occupation from their own point of view, and we really root for them as they deal with all manner of undesirables. These events are interspersed with ‘chum time’ as we get more insights into their private lives and their camaraderie. It’s unfortunately a little obvious and hackneyed, and initially slightly awkward to boot, though the actors seem to settle more into it as the film progresses, possibly as they become more familiar with each other in their roles. Some wonderful tension is created, but the flaws continually diffuse what could have been a much more intense and acute thriller.

The handheld filmmaking style, which really began to filter into the mainstream after the success of ‘The Blair Witch Project’ in 99, seems almost to be allowing ‘Realism’ into Hollywood via the back door. It has largely been confined to horror, where it continues to be refined by the likes of ‘Paranormal Activity’ 07 (featuring security cameras rather than handheld ones), in which series numbers 2 & 3 were arguably the best, and the actually pretty darn scary ‘Insidious’ (10). It could be that with this style of horror movie it has run its course – ‘Paranormal Activity 4’ (12), and the very similarly styled ‘Sinister’ (12) with Ethan Hawke were both very predictable in terms of when the scare was coming and in what form it would take, as well as how everything would end up. However, as evinced at times by ‘End of Watch’, Hollywood filmmakers still have a lot of unexplored territory to put to good effect with the technique, so long as they don’t shoot themselves in the foot by obsessing over it unnecessarily. For a couple of good uses of handhelds see horror film ‘Quarantine’ (08 – itself a remake of the also very good Spanish film ‘Rec’ 07), ‘Project X’ (12) which was kind of a feel good film done in an unexpected way, and ‘Troll Hunter’ (10), a Norwegian film which was beautifully shot and put together.