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Posts tagged “ghost

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)

It’s difficult to explain what this sequel is.  It apparently exists in a world where The Blair Witch Project was just a fictional movie, but the Blair Witch herself actually does exist.  That’s very hard to wrap your head around.  This is one confusing movie which is nothing at all like the movie that preceded it.  This script seems like it was never finished as if the screenwriters came up with all these clever little psychological plot twists, but never had the time to conjure up any answers to them.  The film is certainly creepy, but I really don’t know what it is about it.  There are a good number of surreal events in this film.  It’s like a very large dream that no one wakes up from until the very end.  And it’s not about perspective, it’s about the illusion of reality – did it really happen that way or not?  Everyone swears that it happen like this, we saw it happen right there on the screen, but then, we have undeniable proof that it happened completely differently.  Don’t know what I’m talking about?  Well, that’s how the film has left me feeling all these years.

The movie starts out documenting the phenomenon that was The Blair Witch Project with television clips of movie reviewers, news casts, and fans talking about the film.  One of these fans is Jeffrey Patterson (Jeffrey Donovan) who was inexplicably an ex-mental patient, a fact that is never truly explored.  Jeff now runs The Blair Witch Hunt, a tour guide of everything Blair Witch – including merchandise.  We learn that Jeff is not a fan of Burkittsville, and they are no fans of his – especially Sheriff Cravens (Lanny Flaherty).  The two seem to have a degree of implied history with one another that strains many events throughout the film.  Regardless, Jeff gets four people to sign up for his inaugural tour – Kim Diamond (Kim Director), the hot goth chick, Erica Geersen (Erica Leerhsen), the real-life witch and a student of Wicca, and Tristen Ryler (Tristen Skyler) and her boyfriend Stephen Ryan Parker (Stephen Barker Turner).  The five venture out into the wilderness, and spend a night on the foundation of Rustin Parr’s house.  Strange things happen that night, and when they wake up, they have no knowledge or memory of those events which leave many baffling questions for them.  Although, it is only the beginning, and things are going to get much more bizarre and surreal before it is all over.  As the movie goes on, each character’s sanity unravels in unique fashions in the face of bewildering paranormal events.  Some are paranoid, some are hysterical, some are in denial, and some become very, deeply disturbed as they ultimately cannot discern what truly is reality.

The confusion with this film stems from a jumbled mess of editing and structure.  At times, you will inevitably be disorientated simply by the flashbacks, flash-forwards, and flashes back to the present.  It destroys any cohesion the film might have had, and of course, this was all studio imposed.  The directors original cut was entirely linear, and I would like to see that version.  However, that is merely one element of the larger mess.  The latter half of the film takes place in Jeffrey’s isolated warehouse in the woods where he lives and works.  That’s where all of the hallucinatory and reality bending hysteria takes place.  Everyone suffers from it with some horrifying imagery, and there are a few revelations, but only one that really explains anything at all.  Simply stated, we are presented with one reality as we watch events unfold on film, but video footage from Jeffrey’s camcorder and security camera footage reveals an alternate series of events occurring.  Neither of which are given any more credibility as being truer than the other.  What this movie gives us is a massive load of strange questions without so much as an attempt or even a hint at an answer.  This is a film which leaves you bewildered at the end.  I don’t demand that a film blatantly answer every question or explain every little detail, but to leave an audience with absolutely zero evidence as to a theory of the truth is simply insulting.  You have just wasted an audience’s time on a completely nonsensical film that simply throws contradictions at them without a resolution.

This movie was directed by Joe Berlinger, the same man who brought us the Paradise Lost documentaries about the West Memphis Three.  Those films really hit me hard, and made me a long time supporter of the three men who were wrongly convicted.  Berlinger captured every bit of emotion there was to capture, and allowed the audience to come to their own conclusions regarding this crime and the three youths that had been convicted of it.  Berlinger chose to do the same here, and he states as much on his audio commentary.

In Book of Shadows, he presents everything entirely objectively as he wanted the audience to make their own decisions on what was reality.  Unfortunately, there is such a lack of substantive information or theory presented to us on how or why things happened to form any sort of conclusion as to what did truly happen.  We have absolutely every reason to believe what these characters swear to as the truth because we’ve spent the whole film witnessing it with them.  However, the video tape evidence is shown to fully contradict all of that.  One has to be the truth, yet both are equally, undeniably true, and the film ends offering you no reasoning as to why this is.  This concept can work if prefaced correctly.  A filmmaker has to respect his or her audience by telling a complete story which is cleverly structured and plotted to offer enough intelligent content for answers to be formed from them.  There can still be some mystery or ambiguity at the end, as I praised The Usual Suspects for doing, but a film or story needs a point of view for an audience to latch onto so that they can understand where it’s coming from and where it is going.

There is just so much left unanswered it heavily hurts this movie.  If the filmmakers had attempted to craft a smart and effective story, things surely would’ve been better.  Whether the revelations had been acceptable or not, it’s far better than not trying at all.  If you’re going to craft a reality bending, perception twisting film, you need to pay-off these surreal elements at some point.  Anyone can throw a series of strange and contradictory images up on a screen, and not explain any of it.  It takes talent to make sense of them all, and have them connect in a cohesive and intelligible story.  There’s no drama or tension in being left hanging with a question you cannot even guess at an answer for.  It’s like a joke without a punch line – it turns into a waste of everything good that was put into it.  You build everything up, and then, you just let it hang their at the top of the peak.  I could imagine someone like David Lynch doing this film, and while it would inevitably be far more bizarre, it would have the artistic depth and nuance to eventually discern a hypothesis as to the truth.

However, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is well acted, very well shot, and well directed in certain aspects.  It is not a frightening film or a splatter film, it’s a creepy, eerie film.  It’s got atmosphere and tone to spare, and the production values and design are quite engaging.  I think that’s part of my intrigue for the film.  It looks absolutely gorgeous with its distinct autumn colors, and the tall, long afternoon shadows.  Autumn is my favorite season, and this film captures the atmosphere and look that I love so much about the season.  This deeply permeates through the entire movie.  There are numerous chilling moments throughout the film which are greatly executed.  Despite its storytelling failings, Book of Shadows delivers on some solid horror content which proves there were some skillful talents involved.  There’s a definite psychological element which chillingly surfaces every so often, but since none of it amounts to anything purposeful or substantive, it’s just there for atmospheric effect.  The same goes for all the weird ghostly images and strange occurrences.  They’re effective in creating a very haunting and surreal experience, but ultimately have no meaning.  This film proves that it doesn’t matter how talented you are in creating suspenseful, atmospheric horror if you don’t have a good story to tell.  I can give a film more credit for having a great story and script even if the technical aspects aren’t all that good than the reverse.

This was the movie that introduced me to Jeffrey Donovan who I have enjoyed heavily the last few years on Burn Notice.  Despite how bizarre the film gets, Donovan still stands out as a strong and interesting lead.  He handles all of the unusual demands of the role well, and he makes his character very entertaining while still dark and off-beat.  He’s backed up by a cast that is equally as capable even if there’s a lot of poor dialogue to trudge through.  This could’ve turned out as a worse film due to the nonsensical layers of strangeness present, but the acting talents involved keep it solidly on-point in terms of tone.  There was definitely strong artistic and creative potential here.  Unfortunately, studio interference from Artisan Entertainment forced numerous editorial changes to the film that Joe Berlinger was not pleased with.  It altered the structure of the film with the various flashbacks and flash-forwards along with some added graphic imagery and the asylum scenes with the Jeff character.  Again, Berlinger’s cut was an entirely linear story that might’ve played better, but surely, would have offered no more explanations than the ultimate release version did.  Another critic that I know has called the ending to this film “mean.”  It’s like a big middle finger to the audience because the film bombards you with all this bizarre imagery and mountain of questions, and it vehemently refuses to answer any of them for you.

I think this is another film that I’ve always liked for its potential.  I used to think there was something vastly intriguing about it, despite its confusing flaws.  However, I think my fascination with it was based mostly on the visual quality of the film along with the pieces of a potentially very good twisting and mysterious plot.  This is a very prime example of a film that was not fully developed or well managed during its scripting or pre-production stages, and then, was mangled up further by a studio that just wanted more blood and shock imagery.  Berlinger had the talent for taut suspense and heavy atmosphere creating an exceptionally creepy horror film that a studio simply couldn’t appreciate.  I’m sure his director’s cut is probably a more coherent watch to an extent, but it’s still a heavily flawed film from concept to execution.  Not even Joe Berlinger’s audio commentary offers a haven for a single answer.  The film is presented too objectively, and that’s its real major flaw, too bad it practically overshadows the entire movie.  And no, the title’s Book of Shadows appears nowhere in the film, nor is it ever mentioned.  It is a Wiccan book containing religious texts and instructions for magical rituals.  As I said, the movie is very well made on a technical and tonal level, and the cast is filled with some very fine talents.  It had a some good things going for it, but it failed to provide a pay off.  Any great mystery requires a great reveal, but no attempt at one is present here.


Stir of Echoes (1999)

This film was based on the novel A Stir of Echoes by Richard Matheson, and David Koepp, the screenwriter and director, made a hell of solid and smart thriller out of it.  Koepp has plenty of fine credits to his name ranging from generally good to great films.  While there are a few black marks on his filmography, he showcases a vast amount of solid talent with this nicely crafted supernatural thriller that is Stir of Echoes.

Tom Witzy (Kevin Bacon) lives with his wife Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) and his son Jake (Zachary David Cope) in Chicago.  They live in a neighborhood with a good reputation, but at a party with a bunch of his neighbors, the narrow-minded Tom dares his open-minded sister-in-law, Lisa (Illeana Douglas), to hypnotize him.  She does, but when she implants a post-hypnotic suggestion for him to ‘open his mind’, he begins to see disturbing and confusing visions.  His son has an imaginary friend called Samantha (Jennifer Morrison), but Tom soon realizes that she is not imaginary.  She is the ghost of a young girl that is now terrifying and driving Tom towards strange ends.  As the horrific visions intensify, Tom realizes they are pieces of a puzzle, echoes of a crime calling out to be solved, but when his other-worldly nightmares begin coming true, Tom wants out.  He desperately tries to rid himself of his eerie, unwanted powers – only to be seized by an irresistible compulsion to dig deeper and deeper into the mystery that is consuming his life.

Kevin Bacon absolutely does an incredible job in this role.  He really absorbed himself into it adopting a subtle Chicago accent and a textured blue collar working man appearance.  His physicality is very raw, and it helps that he seemed to be in excellent, lean shape for this film.  He pushes the performance through every fiber of his body with a powerful nervous energy and charisma that is electrifying.  Bacon portrays the increasing obsession and near psychotic behavior amazingly well.  His manic intensity becomes scary like he is going off the deep end, which is quite the truth.  On the flip side, he shows the heart of Tom Witzy with a lot of genuine depth.  Beneath this crazed obsession, he is a deeply caring husband and father with a touching levity of heart.  It’s good to see the real man before this psychic awakening occurs, and thus, we get full context on how drastically he changes and what he’s jeopardizing with his crazed behavior.  There’s ultimately a lot of compassion and humanity in this man who starts out with a bit of an abrasive attitude.

Playing perfectly off of Kevin Bacon is Kathryn Erbe.  She also shows a strong range from loving, bright wife and mother to woman of fire and conviction when Tom goes further out of control.  Erbe and Bacon have very honest and heart-filled chemistry which is a main strength of the movie.  Zachary David Cope was a fine young actor here.  While he has an appropriate innocence and cuteness, he proves to have a mindful intelligence to portray the nuances of the role.  Acting opposite thin air to an unseen ghost is definitely a challenge, but Cope really showed a lot of promise here.  Sadly, it was only second and last film acting role.  The remainder of the cast does equally fine jobs building up a realistic community of dimension characters that ground the film very firmly.

Stir of Echoes is definitely a spooky and startling film with a tight pace.  It keeps a nice unsettling atmosphere going as Tom is very unnerved following his hypnotic awakening.  As the visions begin inflicting more graphic images upon Tom, the more freaked out he gets, and the more the tension of the film rises.  It’s an entertaining and fascinating descent into manic hysteria which just drives the film’s suspense and danger to a more chilling height.  When the film hits those peaks, it gets the heart pounding very strongly.  It winds itself up to a frightening full head of steam once the third act slams itself upon the audience.  While it’s not a rousing climax that is practically horror-based, it definitely resolves itself properly.  It builds upon the more underlying qualities of the film, namely the characters and the community they inhabit.

Thus, I really like the character driven strength of this supernatural thriller.  It’s a ghost story that doesn’t boil down to defeating an evil specter, but instead, helping find justice for an innocent soul.  Showing the quality of this seemingly tight knit Chicago neighborhood plays an important role in the story, and it’s nicely developed and demonstrated to ultimately explore the heart and soul of these people, no matter where they might lie.

Admirably, this film boasts some very good visual effects.  From the ghoulish effects to make Samantha a frightening apparition to the hypnosis sequence in the theatre, these are all consistently top notch effects.  The ghostly make-up effects work done on actress Jennifer Morrison are very haunting and unsettling.  She did a fine job in that aspect as well as the living Samantha in the flashbacks late in the film.  She was a very sweet, shy young woman that is a worthy of the sympathy and tragic value put on the character.  While the “shot in reverse” movement is a clichéd trick to give a creepy quality to her ghost, it is still very effective.

Now, I also have to admit I find a bit of pleasing notoriety from the theatre scenes when Lisa hypnotizes Tom.  They were shot at the Rialto Theatre in Joliet, Illinois where my high school graduation was held the year before this film’s release.  I really love that the filmmakers shot on location throughout the Chicago area bringing a real authentic feel to the neighborhood and other locations.  There’s one shot where Tom’s up on a telephone pole making a call to Lisa, and it pulls back to reveal the Chicago River and Metra trains rolling by.  It’s a location I am very familiar with, and it just creates an honest sensibility that I commend.  Chicago really is a diverse and beautiful city that deserves to be shown off more prominently in film and television, and this is a small gem that takes pleasant, if small advantage of that.

While David Koepp is the sole on-screen credit for the screenplay, there was some work on it done by Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en).  So, I would like to share my praise for the quality of the script with them both.  I’ve never read Richard Matheson’s novel that this was based on, but Koepp and Walker clearly had an intelligent foundation to build upon.  The story never goes for cheap clichés of the genre, and instead, stays focused on its smart supernatural thriller path.  The film makes it a point that it is very focused on Tom Witzy from early on, and the script follows that path very steadily.  It keeps the audience in tune with what he’s experiencing, and we are able to relate to him even when he becomes more irrational and brazen.  He’s intensely driven to uncover whatever it is he needs to in order to shut these psychics visions down.  He himself becomes connected with Samantha, even if he doesn’t entirely know what his purpose in all this is.  So, we follow him on this haunting journey that is exceptionally well executed by David Koepp.  It surely helps this film that there was a highly effective score put together by the immensely talented James Newton Howard.

While this turned out to be a bit shorter review than I usually post, I think the quality of Stir of Echoes has been well conveyed.  It’s not a very complex story, but it lacks no depth of character or scares.  It won’t slam bang you with horror, but it has a solid atmosphere, some startling, graphic imagery, and air of compelling supernatural mystery that is very satisfying.  Seeing the film is worthwhile for Kevin Bacon’s exceptional and amazing performance alone.  He really showed a very wide breadth of talent and commitment here that I find incredible.  The only iffy aspect is that I’m sure the climax would feel stronger if there was an actual supernatural element added into it instead of a straight physical confrontation.  However, I’ll say again that it suits the more character based sensibility of the story, which is somewhat refreshing to see, and does support the idea of needing a living person to resolve things instead of a vengeful spirit stalking and killing people.  So, I certainly do not knock the climax one bit, but an audience could feel like a little extra punch was desired after all the spooky paranormal happenings throughout the film.  There’s just not much of a climactic pay-off for the scary elements in the film.  Overall, I do highly recommend Stir of Echoes as a smart and suspenseful film that has some refreshing turns on the old ghost stories premise.