Horror: Cinema’s Greatest Embarrassment

I have a dream. A dream where horror terrifies again. A dream where this tired genre stops making me jump, and starts scaring me. A dream where the film industry stops pumping out endless remakes of old horror classics. 

I have a dream today. 

Horror has harboured some absolute classics of cinema. Whether you consider Kubrick’s masterful and exceptional piece the Shining, or Ridley Scott’s iconic sci-fi horror Alien, or even Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs, with that world beating performance from Anthony Hopkins; these movies were not only forms of entertainment, but means to terrify, shock and excite. They are true classics of the now tired genre; masterpieces that stand the test of time over decades more then some horror films today do for a few mere minutes. Particularly in Kubrick’s the Shining, the direction is used in such a way to install genuine terror, and whenever I watch it I feel goosebumps on the back of my neck and down my arms, and I can hardly breathe. Without cheap jump-scares (playing a loud noise to briefly frighten the audience), the vision of Kubrick and the acting of Jack Nicholson have immersed me in a haunting world which terrifies me in a way which not many films can. Then take Ridley Scott’s classic horror film Alien: with his haunting cinematography and perfect sound design, such an experience has seldom been matched since, and the scares are even more terrifying for it. In an odd way, even though I wasn’t alive when these were released, I miss these sort of films. They were made in such a style that suggested the makers took a sort of pride in their work, a degree of care.

The corridor sequences in the Shining are a master-class in terror. Modern horror fails to match it.

No such luck today. Although the film industry is producing non stop waffle in every area, including romantic comedies, thrillers and even Superhero movies, the horror genre seems to have it particularly bad. Originality is forgotten, a sense of class and decency is gone from the film-makers’ approach and even self parodying mocks of the genre such as the Scream franchise have dropped dead. ‘Promising’ and ‘exciting’ directors such as James Wan (who I can understand but disapprove of) and Eli Roth (who is just a downright clown) are attempting to take on the genre in their droves, with nasty and pretty tasteless films such as the Saw series and Eli Roth’s Hostel films, the latter of which can be defined as torture porn. They are not well made, they have no sense of decency or flair in execution, they are just nasty and stupid films that are a little look into the director’s twisted vision. Unfortunately there is a market for this sort of thing, but I fear that the lines between conventional horror and torture porn are getting blurred. Some are even denying Roth’s work (and I will again say what a disgustingly perverse and stupid film-maker he is) is torture porn, when the plot of Hostel is a group of teenagers get tied up and tortured excessively in dark rooms for about 2 hours. It is vile, shoddy and inexplicably dumb cinema, and is a dark road for horror to be lead down.

A few horror films over the past decade have caught the eye, for attempting to be different, and some show signs of reinventing horror down a much more interesting and original path. One interesting example is the original Paranormal Activity, and although it spawned an immediately uninteresting franchise, the first in the series used a very clever technique in building up the paranormal presence to create a sense of dread and unease. A rare occasion where I wasn’t annoyed by jump-scares, Paranormal Activity was a very well made horror film that was then tarnished by its successors. The previously mentioned James Wan had a decent stab with the hit horror Insidious, which was a creepy and effective, if somewhat convoluted haunted house/possession movie, which is scheduled for a sequel. This was another highlight of the last decade; while not overly brilliant or original, it at least had attempts to create a good atmosphere and a sense of dread, which is a vital step that some directors just move around. The best of the last ten years though, is ironically the critically acclaimed and semi-genius film the Cabin in the Woods. To the average viewer, it is a pretty average and conventional horror movie. What it is to the keen observer is a comedy-of-sorts, poking fun at the horror genre by providing the most clichéd and stereotypical horror film in years, as a message to the industry. It is almost a mock of the very genre it pretends to be, a brilliant and satirical view of the tired genre.

Say what you must in defence of Eli Roth and James Wan, and the many repetitive and tiring horror films that litter the shelves: the fact the best horror film of the last ten years is mocking the genre, says an awful lot about the condition it is in. A vicious cycle, a wave of repeatedly nasty and silly horror films are constantly hitting our screens. This prospect is more scary then the films themselves.

Man of Steel- the Review

Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan must have debated the biggest problem with the Superman mythology for hours; how can you make Superman relatable? How can the audience relate to and care for a man who can fly, is super strong, can shoot laser beams out of his eyes, can see through walls, break the speed of sound and even put on a pair of glasses and pass for a completely different guy? He ticks the box for virtually every superpower ever created, and because of this I have always found it hard to love Superman like others have. After Bryan Singer’s boring and slightly absurd attempt to continue the Superman story in the 2006 film Superman Returns, the series desperately needed a reboot, and it is no surprise that the man charged with writing and producing this reboot was the brilliant Christopher Nolan, best known for reinventing Batman in his Dark Knight trilogy. His influence is often seen throughout the film; lovely additions such as a 5 year old Superman freaking out because he can suddenly use X-Ray vision are taken straight from Nolan’s head, and adds a fresh dimension when considering the mythology of Superman. While it may not be perfect, Man of Steel is a refreshing and brave new beginning for the story of Superman, and one which may have saved the character on the big screen.

Unlike Superman Returns, Man of Steel reverts back to the origin story, with a completely new cast including Henry Cavill and Amy Adams, who work hard to add new elements to their long tired characters. The film does wait a long time before it decides to give Clark Kent his famous suit, and the film benefits from it. Through exploring Superman’s childhood and his early adulthood, the audience is given a chance to know and care for Superman, and the early moments strive to avoid crafting a two dimensional character. This is helped by a superb lead performance from Henry Cavill as Clark Kent; he works hard to help the audience relate to Superman and gives the film some emotional weight, something that has always been lacking in the big screen adaptations. Cavill brings something new to Superman, a set of complex emotions behind stone jaw and skin-tight suit, and I was grateful for the effort put in to try and involve the audience on an emotional level.

This is an iconic moment of the movie, and epitomises the originality and bravery Nolan has incorporated.

When the evil General Zod appears though, played by Michael Shannon, things get more complicated, for both Superman and the film. I rate Michael Shannon highly as an actor, so I was disappointed that he was severely underdeveloped, and suffered from weak dialogue, which made him a bit of a lacklustre and forgettable villain, which is something the Dark Knight franchise, for example, always thrived on. Shannon is always good at playing the unhinged sort (most noticeably as a rude and shockingly honest insane man in Revolutionary Road, a performance nominated for an Academy Award), and yet the script doesn’t allow Shannon to bring his full range of acting skills to the table, relying instead on action, which isn’t Shannon’s strength. Also, Nolan’s good ideas get lost in Snyder’s preposterous directing of action, which in the last third of the film just involves Superman and Zod taking it in turns to hit each other through buildings, until we get a shot of people running away from a falling building. After 20 minutes of this, the film starts to feel over-long and boring, and it is not until the final thrilling set piece that the film grabs your interest again. Due to a lack of action in the majority of the film, perhaps Snyder decided to chuck it all in at once: and while at first the action is refreshing, meaty, and satisfying, it slowly ends up becoming tiresome and bland, which is a real shame due to the hard work made to ensure that the early moments are so refreshing and human. Once you have seen Zod punched through a building once, you have seen it another million times, and yet the film insists on showing to you it again and again. Why did Snyder insist on dropping the film’s IQ so dramatically? What started out as an intelligent and emotionally strong film threatens to drop into a summer blockbuster genre, and thankfully Snyder pulls out of the action just in time for this to be avoided.

For a film that tries so hard to be emotionally astute, Man of Steel fails in its presentation of Lois Lane (played by Amy Adams), and her relationship with Superman. I had hoped that Nolan had written Lois as a more interesting, independent and thoughtful character, which would be a welcome diversion from the stereotypical ‘damsel in distress’ figure that has always been present in Superman films. Sadly, while she shows glimpses of a more interesting character, as the film goes on she develops into someone who just is there for Superman to rescue, which is a missed opportunity. In its bravery to show Clark Kent growing up, and then to show epic battles between Zod and Superman, the film barely has time to develop any sort of chemistry between Superman and Lois Lane, so it feels forced and rushed when they get together almost out of the blue. The film is overly ambitious in its attempt to reboot Superman, but this showing of ambition is admirable, and does work in surprising and original ways, which make Man of Steel a thrilling and intriguing experience, albeit one that has many flaws and will not appeal to everyone. For someone who has never related or even liked Superman, I loved Man of Steel. However, is the series already running out of steam?

Best Bit

After a very interesting and non-linear look into Superman’s origins and past, which involved little to no action, just character development, seeing Superman flying through a house, slamming into General Zod, hitting him through a concrete building, all while repeatedly punching him, is immensely satisfying to experience; not only due to the well-directed nature of the action, but because Clark Kent finally gets to kick some ass.

Worst Bit

The last 30 minutes of Man of Steel are a heavily dominated by a repetitive turn-taking routine of you-punch-me-I-punch-you involving Superman and Zod, and a few really big buildings to get thrown through. It’s a shame that Zack Snyder managed to dominate and smother Nolan’s good ideas in the final segment; the emotion and clever ideas of the film are drowned out with a barrage of noise and explosions.

Overall

Despite its flaws, Man of Steel is an admirable and brave attempt to bring Superman back with a bang into cinema. While the villain and love interests do lack an emotional punch, a superb lead performance from Henry Cavill, plus some very original and surprising additions in a superb story written by Christopher Nolan means that Man of Steel does possess its fair share of emotional weight. In a hectic and exciting action scene, I spotted a truck with ‘Lex Corp’ written on its side. I’m already excited for part two.

4/5

After Earth- the Review

M. Night Shyamalan is becoming defined for his greatest failures. His original triumph, the Sixth Sense, has propelled him to a level of fame which perhaps blighted his career from the moment the infamous twist was revealed. Since then he has slowly deteriorated in form until we come to the present day, and it seems now that Shyamalan has fallen into the classic director’s curse of making the best film of his career first time. His latest instalment, After Earth, isn’t quite the disaster that the Last Airbender and Lady in the Water were, but it still is a harrowing reminder of the lost potential this once promising talent offered.

After Earth stars Will Smith and his son, Jaden Smith, who play a hardened war veteran and his son in a future world, where humans have had to abandon Earth and populate new planets, some of which occupy a savage alien species which are blind, but can sense your fear. So when they both crash land on a now abandoned and dangerous planet Earth, this soldier’s son must travel alone into the planet to recover a distress beacon, so they can both go home, and he can let go of all his fear and become a true warrior. Unlike his previous disasters, Shyamalan did not write the script, instead sticking solely to the director’s chair and handing over the writers’ duties to Will Smith. What we have lost with Shyamalan’s script, which included horrendous narration, scrambled mythology and an alarming attempt to cast himself as saviour of the world, are replaced with Will Smith’s writing, which introduces even worse dialogue, blatant nepotism and controversy with a popular theory of whether the whole film is a big budget advertisement for Scientology, something both Will Smith and the ‘religion’ denies. Will Smith has long been rumoured to be a member of Scientology, publicly donating money to them, and many have associated the teachings of Will Smith’s character, to let go of emotion, with the teachings of Scientology, where this holds an alarming resemblance. Having known these allegations when watching After Earth, all I could think was if only these Scientology allegations have any merit. The film would be far more interesting with that kind of controversy; instead we are left with a flabby and extremely boring science fiction movie, where the problem isn’t a hidden religious message but a clichéd, boring style of direction from Shyamalan and total miscasting with both Will Smith and his son.

Some have argued that the Volcano is taken from the creator of Scientology’s book, which depicts a Volcano as it’s cover. If only the film were that interesting.

Jaden Smith cannot act. He is a 15 year old boy, who has been told he is an actor and stuffed into a silly costume by a clearly overbearing father in Will Smith (whose daughter and Jaden’s sister is infamously a pop star and ‘a bisexual’ at the tender age of 12). His role in this movie is nothing but nepotism, spending in excess of $200 million on both marketing and producing cost so that Will Smith can show off his son’s supposed talent. Not only does he put his own son in his movie, clearly ignoring his lack of acting prowess, but he also makes him the star of the film, where for huge periods he has to carry the movie by himself. In these sections, the film falls down, because Jaden Smith is so wooden and bland you wonder whether there was a mix up with the cribs and he is actually the biological son of Hayden Christianson. Jaden Smith stumbles through the film with a face of almost comical surprise, reciting his lines as if he was reading from a teleprompter, and making it a chore for the audience to stick with him through the majority of the movie. Not that Will Smith does much better; in casting himself in this role he clearly has an exaggerated view of his acting skills. He should be a fun, wisecracking character, not a stuffy, stone faced soldier who is famous for showing no emotion whatsoever. Midway through the film, Will Smith makes a grand speech to his son, talking about how ‘fear is a choice’. Not only is the whole nature of that flawed (fear is an instinctive means to save ourselves) but he delivers it in a disjointed and husky voice, giving the whole speech a laughable quality. M. Night Shyamalan must be relieved; due to Will Smith’s miracle of churning out a boring script, miscasting himself, miscasting his son, and bringing up Scientology controversy, no one has noticed that this is yet another bitterly disappointing and lazy effort from Shyamalan himself. After Earth isn’t a disaster, unlike some of his previous efforts, but comparison to his failures does not make this any better.

There is one scene near the beginning, where Jaden is enticed to go and see the bloodthirsty alien in his cage, and slowly creeps up to the black and ominous cargo in the confides of a cramped ship. This scene is brilliantly directed, decently acted, and is unbearably tense. Why couldn’t the rest of the film been like this? Shyamalan occasionally allows us brief glimpses into what he can do, and then only disappoints us with a sloppy final product. After Earth isn’t totally his fault; the majority of the blame for this silly and boring science fiction movie falls to Will Smith, but Shyamalan directs so lazily you just wonder whether he has given up on recapturing his old style. Unlike some of his past movies, After Earth doesn’t even look that good. In his older films, such as the Sixth Sense, Shyamalan incorporated a wonderful sense of style, introducing a grey colour palet, punctuated by sharp bursts of bright colour. Here, there is no hint of that previous style. The special effects are average at best, with some occasional green screen slips completely destroying the atmosphere the film so desperately wants to create. It is shameful that around $200 million was spent on this film, and for what, so Will Smith gets his son some publicity? So Shyamalan can remind people he exists? Or as some would argue, to advertise the cult of Scientology? If this is what the film industry is coming to, I don’t want to be a part of it.

Best Bit

The early scene where Jaden Smith slowly walks up to the aggressive alien’s cage is a good example of Shyamalan’s past talent; the atmosphere and intensity of the scene had me hooked for a few seconds, and reminded me again of how Shyamalan used to be one of the most exciting directors in the world.

Worst Bit

The ‘fear is a choice’ speech from Will Smith is riddled with bad acting and horrendous dialogue. He spits his words out as if they are his last, over exaggerating the dramatic impact of these words. He describes how he first lost all his fear through a sequence of very short sentences, delivering the lines with such horrendous timing that I burst out laughing (and so did other members of the surprisingly sparse audience).

Overall

If this was any other director but M. Night Shyamalan, this would be considered the worst film of their career. Due to his clichéd directorial style, Will Smith’s blatant nepotism in trying to turn his son into a Hollywood star, and a shoddy concept written atrociously, After Earth becomes a stain on the careers for everyone involved. What really disappoints about After Earth is the brief potential it offered; which makes it even more crushing when you sit through a boring, bland, tedious and lazy attempt at science fiction. Two hundred million dollars well wasted.

1/5