One of the better post-Paranormal Activity found footage movies is 2011’s GRAVE ENCOUNTERS, an energetic riff on reality TV ghost-hunting shows that’s both funny and genuinely scary. The small crew of an up-and-coming paranormal investigation series goes to an abandoned psychiatric hospital that, according to numerous sources, is haunted by the spirits of its former tortured patients. After the host, Lance (Sean Rogerson), interviews “eye-witnesses” to the place’s supernatural activity, he and his crew lock themselves inside the building overnight to record footage, all the while doubting if it’s actually haunted. It’s not exactly a surprise when they discover it is.

The first half of the film is comprised of the crew doing their intentionally hokey TV schtick and playing up the sensationalism of creaking doors and shadowy corridors. Things take a turn for the worse when Lance and crew become seemingly stuck in a time loop and are physically unable to leave the building, while constantly being bombarded by demonic attacks. The screenplay (by directors Stuart Ortiz and Colin Minihan) does a terrific job of juxtaposing the lighthearted goofiness of the first 30 or so minutes against a fun house of scary jolts in the remainder of the film. A good use of sound FX heightens the intensity of the atmosphere, leading to a bleak but honest ending.

One of the best horror mockumentaries of the last several years is the 2008 Australian film, LAKE MUNGO. A disturbing, layered mystery, Lake Mungo chronicles the events of the Palmers, a happy family from a small town who, after the tragic death of 16-year-old Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker), begin to experience strange happenings around their home. When Alice’s brother, Mathew (Martin Sharpe), believes that Alice’s ghost is trying to communicate, the family seeks the help of a well-known psychic (Simon Wilton), which leads them down a road of shocking revelations.

An unsettling and surprisingly complex film, Lake Mungo isn’t your typical found footage movie. The script delves deeper into human interactions, and explores the unbalanced lives of seemingly normal family households and their inner secrets. In a sense, the story is more about the underlying dysfunctional reality of the Palmers than the supernatural plot. But that’s the brilliance of the screenplay (written by director Joel Anderson); it’s structured to mislead you, and then it pulls the rug out from underneath you by offering up twists and turns. Don’t think that Lake Mungo isn’t also an effective ghost tale, because it is, slowly building to a creepy, and startling, reveal that will get under your skin.

Tact is not something the people from The Asylum (Sharknado) have a lot of, and their 2010 release, 8213: GACY HOUSE, is a good example of tacky sensationalism. A group of paranormal researchers decide to investigate the house that was built over the foundation of notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s home (demolished in 1979) to see if they can contact the murderer’s spirit. We’re never given any backstory to why these characters believe Gacy’s ghost haunts this location, but they spend a good amount of time setting up cameras around the building, performing a séance, and calling out to Gacy. At one point, a character pulls out the sweatshirt of her 14-year-old nephew in order to entice Gacy to appear! Oh, boy.

Sloppy and unconvincing, Gacy House is built on a wobbly narrative that has no core at its center. The movie exists solely to shock, yet the horror it presents is so superficial and dull that you can’t take any of it seriously. Unlike Paranormal Activity, which interwove a believable mythology around the action, Gacy House offers nothing in support of its paper-thin plot. It’s a hollow exercise in lowest common denominator filmmaking. And if you ever wanted to see the ghost of John Wayne Gacy clad in transparent underwear then this is the movie for you! | Lake Mungo: AGrave Encounters: B+ Gacy House: D


When it comes to slow burns, filmmaker Ti West knows what he’s doing. Following in the same low-key, suspense-building footsteps as his previous film, The House of the Devil, 2011’s THE INNKEEPERS features a young woman, Claire (Sara Paxton), who, along with her coworker, Luke (Pat Healy), are the only remaining employees of the closing, supposedly haunted Yankee Pedlar Inn. Not knowing what to do next with her life, Claire joins Luke in his quest to catch a ghost on camera, specifically the spirit of Madeline O’Malley, a woman who killed herself in the hotel decades earlier.

As with House of the Devil, The Innkeepers focuses most of its attention on the characters, especially Claire who’s very relatable and someone we want to see succeed and not be harmed. Claire is also a great juxtaposition to Luke, who’s very somber and cranky. At one point, Claire is more excited about her ghostly recordings than Luke, whose ghost-hunting website she’s volunteering her time to. Claire is the bright spot in a film filled with negative people and manipulative spirits. Her pleasant, somewhat naive personality is what ultimately victimizes her. A good film with terrific characters and a chilling finale.

The 2018 French NIGHT SHOT offers up found footage thrills. Nathalie (Nathalie Couturier), the host of a YouTube-type series of urban exploration videos, along with her cameraman (director Hugo König), hike to an abandoned hospital in the middle of the forest to film a new episode. Once inside the massive dwelling Nathalie tells of the place’s unsavory history, particularly the story of a certain doctor who performed fiendish experiments on pregnant women. It isn’t long until she and the cameraman are trapping inside the building’s sinister walls while being pursued by unseen supernatural forces.

Much like The Blair Witch Project, Night Shot uses its claustrophobic environment to disorient its characters and trap them in an unexplained time loop. The “gimmick” of the film is that it’s shot in one, unedited take. It’s also filmed in B&W, which adds to the creepiness of the atmosphere. As with many FF flicks, the story unfolds as a slow burn but it’s never uninteresting; quite the contrary, with the labyrinthine, decaying hospital being a character itself. It builds to a lurid, genuinely unsettling conclusion.

Believe it or not, at one point in time the Amityville story was taken seriously. But, as with most successful horror movies, the story became sequelized to death and the franchise eventually lost the plot completely. In the last few decades, the films have essentially become a marketing gimmick for any kind of low-budget haunted house flick – look at the 2011 Amityville Haunting, which is nothing more than a lifeless Paranormal Activity rip-off that has nothing to do with the original Amityville story at all. (And let’s not even get into Amityville in Space.)

Exception should be given to 1996’s overtly silly but undeniably entertaining AMITYVILLE: DOLLHOUSE. After a divorced father, Bill (Robin Thomas), and his new wife, Claire (Starr Andreeff), move their family – comprised of his and her kids from previous marriages – into a newly-built house, they begin to experience bizarre mood swings and supernatural occurrences. Bill has dreams of a demonic-like figure, Claire begins lusting after hunky teen stepson, Todd (Allen Cutler), and Claire’s young son, Jimmy (Jarrett Lennon), begins talking to the decaying, manipulative ghost of his deceased dad. Does all this have something to do with the weird dollhouse found in the backyard shed, one that is modeled after the infamous Long Island dwelling?

The foolish tie-in with the Amityville universe aside, Dollhouse is a surprisingly inventive little movie that’s much better made than you’d think. The plot is beyond ludicrous and the characters don’t seem to live in a reality where logic exists, yet the family is likable enough that you end up caring about their plight, even when they do incredibly stupid things – Todd’s sound system mysteriously cranks to top volume yet instead of simply removing his headphones from his head he fumbles with the wires while making a panicky face. In the end, the movie is so inherently dumb and giddy in its campy excesses it becomes a sight to see, especially during its batshit crazy climax. The Innkeepers: B+ Night Shot and Amityville: B


When it comes to remakes 1999’s cheesy HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL ranks as one of the more entertaining ones. Giving his best Vincent Price, distinguished actor Geoffrey Rush stars as theme park king, Stephen Price (get it?), who invites five guests to the abandoned cliff-side Vannacutt Institute for the Criminally Insane for his venomous wife’s (Famke Janssen) birthday party. Price offers the guests $1 million if they can survive the night inside the maze-like structure and retrofits the place with tricks and pranks, unaware that the place is actually haunted by the demented Dr. Vannacutt (Jeffrey Combs) and his patients who died from his hideous experiments.

Director William Malone (Feardotcom) doesn’t shy away from the ghosts and ghouls that William Castle hinted at in the 1959 original, with the film offering up several creep monster FX, including one of the first of the fast-moving, head-shaking ghost that has become almost a staple in most of today’s haunted house flicks. The plot is complete hokum but the cast has fun with the material, especially Janssen and Rush who seem to relish going at each other’s throats.

At first sight, 2009’s handsomely photographed THE UNINVITED sounds like a retelling of the classic Ray Milland film of the same title from 1944, but is in fact a remake of an overrated 2003 South Korean movie called A Tale of Two Sisters. After being institutionalized for a suicide attempt, teenager Anna (Emily Browning) goes back home to find her father (David Strathairn) has become romantically involved with her deceased mother’s nurse, Rachel (Elizabeth Banks). While Anna and her sister, Alex (Arielle Kebbel), try to figure out the mysterious fire that killed their sick mother, Anna begins seeing ghostly visions and questioning not only Rachel’s true motivations but also her own sanity.

While the film looks great and its beautiful Maine setting could be a character itself, the screenplay is littered with too many red herrings and relies too heavily on Anna’s “is it real?” psychosis. The film also builds up a false narrative and presents a twist ending that is neither convincing nor credible. Banks gives a cold, tense performance as the “wicked stepmother” but Browning, whose shoulders the entire story rests on, is vacant and unsympathetic.

A superior ghost tale is the 2000 Robert Zemeckis-helmed WHAT LIES BENEATH. Michelle Pfeiffer is perfectly cast as Claire, a mother who a year after surviving a car accident comes to believe her newly renovated lake-side home is haunted. At first she thinks it might be the ghost of the missing wife of her brutish new neighbor (James Remar), but when things intensify Claire realizes her husband, Norman (Harrison Ford), may be connected.

While not perfect, What Lies Beneath is a terrific example of visual storytelling. The plot isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, but Zemeckis wisely presents it with an obvious love and understand of classic filmmaking, especially in the tradition of Hitchcock. The film unfolds as a mystery and slowly builds the tension, keeping you on your toes almost the whole time. Pfeiffer is extremely likable and warm, and her scenes with best friend Diana Scarwid are some of the strongest in the movie. And unlike a lesser movie like The Uninvited, What Lies Beneath doesn’t rely on a wobbly narrative that barely supports a “shock” ending, but instead cares more about strong characters and a simple but effective premise. House on Haunted Hill: B The Uninvited: CWhat Lies Beneath: B+


Sort of the Blumhouse of the early ’00s, Dark Castle was a well known but short-lived production company that specialized in cheesy but entertaining horror. One of their offerings was 2002’s GHOST SHIP, a visually impressive haunted house variant about a ship salvage crew who stumble upon a luxury cruise liner that disappeared in 1962. Once aboard, they find a cargo full of gold, as well as the vengeful spirits of the ship’s previous passengers, all of whom died horrible deaths and are mad as hell.

Shot in the same frenzied vein as the House on Haunted Hill remake, Death Ship looks great, but its plot is paper-thin and relies too much on a rather uninteresting subplot that tries to function as a mystery. That aside, the cast is good – Julianna Margulies, Gabriel Byrne, and Karl Urban! – and the action moves at a brisk pace. The bloodthirsty ghosts are essentially the same breed as the murderous spirits from House on Haunted Hill and Thirteen Ghosts, offering up nothing new or exciting.

Considered a modern horror classic, Hideo Nakata’s bleak 1998 chiller, RING, is a ghost story for the digital age. While investigating the mysterious deaths of her niece and two other high schoolers, reporter Reiko (Nanako Matsushima) discovers a silly urban legend might be all too real: a cursed videotape that will kill anyone a week after they’ve watched it. Based on a popular novel, the brilliance of the story is its use of technology as a weapon. The curse of the vengeful spirit being transmitted through a VHS tape might seem dated, but the release of the film corresponded perfectly with the rise of the internet and the digital revolution. How can you stop a supernatural virus that’s spread through wires?

A masterwork in minimalist horror, Ring was massively influential – the 2002 remake unleashed a wave of Asian horror revamps in Hollywood – and a clear inspiration for the Ju-on series and a host of similar “long hair ghost” movies. While the J-horror subgenre has plenty of fun titles (2003’s One Missed Call is an effective Ring rip-off), those movies don’t have the elegant subtlety of Nakata’s film, which relies mostly on atmosphere and suggestion rather than visceral scares, except, of course, for the famous twist ending.

Speaking of Japanese films, 2005’s DARK WATER was one of many remakes that came in the wake of the American The Ring. Recently divorced, fragile Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly) and her young daughter, Ceci (Ariel Gabe), move into a dank, leaking apartment on New York’s Roosevelt Island. Soon after, the daughter begins talking to an imaginary friend, and strange noises are heard from an unoccupied apartment upstairs where something sinister happened to the previous tenants. When Dahlia’s mental health unravels she must try to solve the mystery before Ceci is taken away from her.

A moody ghost story with good characters, a terrific cast, Dark Water is handsomely directed by Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries), but those expecting a traditional scare show like The Grudge might be disappointed with the movie’s slow pace and lack of showy special effects. That aside, this is a solid film with strong performances and a gripping mother-daughter relationship. Ring: ADark Water: B Ghost Ship: C+


This month I’ve decided to dive into haunted house/supernatural invasion movies, and to kick things off I watched the 1980 classic, THE CHANGELING. An old-fashioned ghost story, The Changeling stars the always good George C. Scott as a music professor who, after the death of his wife and child in a car accident, seeks a change of scenery by moving into a large house in Seattle. It isn’t long until he begins hearing strange noises coming from the attic, and eventually uncovers a murder mystery and decades-old secret.

The Changeling is an interesting film because it’s not your typical modern haunted house flick. Sandwiched between the visceral FX of Amityville Horror and Poltergeist, The Changeling seems like an idea that came from the 1940s, when ghost stories were more subtle and less about the “boo” moments. 

The screenplay (written by William Gray and Diana Maddox) flows as more of a mystery, and director Peter Medak keeps the attention on character development and story structure over visual supernatural activity. That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have its share of creepy moments – its rich atmosphere could be a character itself, with shadows playing a big part in the narrative’s otherworldly reality. 

On the complete opposite end of the cinematic spectrum is Lucio Fulci’s gory answer to Amityville, 1981’s THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY. Set in the same altered reality as Fulci’s gruesome twosome, City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, House features a small family who leave New York and move into dusty old “Oak Mansion” outside Boston. There, the dad (Paolo Malco) plans to continue the research his ex-colleague was performing before he committed suicide. Along with his wife (Catriona MacColl), who’s in a constant state of upset, and flop-top son (Giovanni Frezza), Dad discovers their new house harbors a deadly secret: the zombified Dr. Freudstein, a madman who performed diabolical experiments in the house 100 years earlier – and who needs fresh body parts to remain reanimated.

An example of excessive Italian horror at its hysterical best, House by the Cemetery is Fulci firing on all cylinders. The movie might appear to be just another run-of-the-mill Amityville/Shining wannabe – there’s a subplot involving the son’s (unexplained) psychic link with the spirit of Freudstein’s young daughter (Silvia Collatina) – yet Fulci’s unique style and eye for detail makes the movie work wonderfully. Fulci’s hallmarks are all over this, including extreme close-ups of maggot-infested body parts, a beautiful but nonsensical narrative, heavy atmosphere, and the always hilariously bad dubbing. Where else will you see a blood-drenched, two-minute bat attack?

Plugging into the then-popularity of Nightmare on Elm Street, the THE HORROR SHOW is a 1989 entry in the “Is it a dream?” sub-subgenre. Detective McCarthy (Lance Henriksen) is haunted by dreams of deranged serial killer, Max Jenke (Brion James), who he helped capture and witnessed executed in the electric chair. But Jenke, whose spirit has invaded McCarthy’s home through some form of electric phenomena, won’t stay dead and terrorizes the family by slashing up their friends and framing McCarthy for the murders. 

Originally planned (and released overseas) as House III, this seems to have been an attempt at creating another Freddy Krueger, but it takes itself way too seriously and just comes off just a dumb rip-off. Henriksen gives the film more credit than it deserves and James is pure ham, but this does predate the similarly themed Shocker by several months. The Changeling and House by the Cemetery: B+ Horror Show: C  

RANDOM REVIEWS: The Spiral Staircase, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946) d: Robert Siodmak. c: Dorothy McGuire, Ethel Barrymore, George Brent, Kent Smith, Rhoda Fleming, Elsa Lanchester, Gordon Oliver. Effective psychological chiller about a mute caregiver (McGuire) in a small New England town in the early 1900s terrorized by a killer of young women with disabilities. The film’s dense atmosphere creates an almost nightmarish world, while also successfully blending elements of film-noir into the story’s more dominant gothic setting. It should be noted this is one of the first movies to use the “black-gloved killer” that would become so prominent in Italian slashers of the ’60s and ’70s. The cast is good – especially Barrymore as the invalid matriarch of an estate that could house the identity of the murderer – but Siodmak’s direction is often cold, creating a barrier between the audience and the characters and softening the impact. A film that was ahead of its time, but one can’t help wonder how the story could have benefited had Hitchcock or Val Lewton gotten their hands on the material. B

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) d: Dan Trachtenberg. c: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr. A white-knuckle thrill ride that works on multiple levels, this second film in the Cloverfield universe is perhaps the best sci-fi horror thriller in years. After surviving a car accident, a woman, Michelle (Windstead), wakes up in an underground bunker and is told by a strange man, Henry (Goodman), that some kind of attack has killed most of civilization in the surrounding areas. Things get worse when Michelle realizes Henry is not mentally stable, and the pressure rises as he makes life in the bunker difficult for her and another trapped survivor, Emmett (Gallagher Jr.). A simple premise is made rich thanks to a tight screenplay, which smartly places the audience in Michelle’s shoes and allows us to only know what she knows, which is mostly speculation from Henry. When surprising events unfold, they’re shocking and unpredictable. The claustrophobic environment of the bunker creates unease, especially when tension mounts between Henry and Michelle, creating some genuinely nail-biting moments. The characters are well-written and the chemistry between the actors feels organic and genuine. The surprise ending will leave you both on the edge of you seat and cheering. A

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (1986) d: Tobe Hooper. c: Dennis Hopper, Caroline Williams, Jim Siedow, Bill Moseley, Bill Johnson. 14 years after the events in the first film, former Texas Ranger, Enright (Hopper), is looking for the infamous Sawyer family, unaware they’re now owners of an award-winning food truck (“The secret’s in the meat!”) and living under an abandoned theme park. When small-time radio DJ, Stretch (Williams), records the chainsaw murder of a caller, she uses the tape to help Enright catch the Sawyers, with dire consequences. Taking everything that’s been (wrongly) criticized about his earlier films, Hooper spins a delicious send-up by throwing in everything that was missing from the original Massacre (outrageous gore) and turning up the camp value – Moseley’s Chop Top is essentially a cartoon version of the hitchhiker from the ’74 film, while Williams’s Stretch is Sally dialed up to 11. A fun and colorful example of ’80s horror excess. B+