Continuing on my hunt for good (or at least watchable) horror movies to usher in the Halloween season, I found two supernatural flicks on Netflix that are decently entertaining. I especially enjoyed one better than the other, but I’m still in the mood for more scares.
‘From Within’ doesn’t pull any punches. You won’t find any unexpected twists or surprises in this 90-minute horror thriller. It’s a fairly straightforward supernatural tale that delivers precisely on what it promises right from the get-go: lots of spooks and scares with creepy faces and blackened eyes poking out from the darkest shadows. Granted, this makes it more likely to collapse under the weight of the usual genre trappings and conventions, and we get our share of horror standards on full display here. Yet somehow Phedon Papamichael, cinematographer-turned-director better known for his amazing work on the ‘3:10 to Yuma‘ remake, ‘Walk the Line‘ and Alexander Payne’s ‘The Descendants‘, makes what would otherwise be brushed off as simply rehashing the same-ole-same-ole into a pleasantly diverting spookfest.
The premise, from a script by Brad Keene (‘The Grudge 3’ and ‘The Gravedancers’), is an interesting and somewhat disturbing idea about the potential evil that resides in all of us, especially when fear of the unknown takes hold of our better moral judgments. The plot’s most disquieting aspect has to do with a curse that makes people commit suicide, which is pretty eerie. The story is set in the sleepy town of Grovetown, Maryland, a deeply religious community with rigid adherences to some rather intolerant fundamentalist views and principles. A few of the older residents hide a dark secret from only few years earlier, in which they accused a mother of two boys of witchcraft and covered up her death by burning. Today, that tale is an urban legend. But as suicides continue to mount within a matter of days, what was believed to be a local myth is now at the root cause of a dark, terrifying reality.
The religious element of the narrative is a touchy subject, leaving itself open to some disingenuous criticism, but the script has a few sad truths underlying the themes. Living with her alcoholic stepmother, teenager Lindsay (Elizabeth Rice) is a young, impressionable girl under the seemingly constant scrutiny of others to toe the line. A good deal of that pressure comes from her boyfriend Dylan (Kelly Blatz), the son of the local minister whose religious fervor slowly grows into a frightening wrathful rage. The once peaceful community starts to break down when Lindsay rescues the town’s outcast Aidan (Thomas Dekker), a non-believer who is also the son of the woman accused of witchcraft. This little rift creates unnecessary drama and gossip, the sort better suited for daytime television. Thankfully, it serves the narrative decently without also being a detriment.
Anyway, we’re not here for some pseudo-‘Twilight’ melodramatic threesome. We’re here for the spooky festivities, of which there are quite a few, and almost all pretty damn effective. Moments before someone commits suicide, the person sees a mirror image of him- or herself, sometimes literally on various reflective surfaces, but it’s a darker, scary version, chasing after the intended victim as a creepy ghostly figure the person obviously can’t outrun. This is where ‘From Within’ delivers the goods and also derives its title. Papamichael does great at having this freakish apparition pop up in the most unexpected places and from around every corner. Although not the sort to make you jump out of your seat, the scenes are often quite chilling and spine-tingling. The story could benefit from a few tweaks, but overall, ‘From Within’ is an entertaining supernatural horror flick with a strong but pessimistic finish.
‘The Awakening’ is a brooding, morose motion picture that mixes all the deadly serious melodrama of ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ with classic supernatural Gothic horror. Jump scares are few and happily don’t feel cheap, and the random eerie noises in the distance are only half the fun to be found in this spooky British delight from director Nick Murphy, who makes his theatrical debut after a decade of working in television. More attention is given to establishing an ominous, suspicious air to an all-boys boarding school that was once the home to a wealthy, prominent family decades ago, a fact the filmmakers remind us of on several occasions. Hallways are long and dark, classrooms are creepily empty and hollow, and there are many secret rooms in which a person may get lost but also turn out to hide important clues.
With co-writer Stephen Volk, Murphy is careful not to see his ghostly tale wander into the clichéd and conventional, though he does employ familiar techniques for generating some effectively spine-chilling moments. These include transparent figures of a small child in the corners of photographs, movement within the darkest shadows of the room, and disturbing whispers when no one else is around. One of the school teachers, Robert Mallory (Dominic West), explains that the building may be haunted by the spirit of a little boy, which may be responsible for the recent death of a young student. Where Murphy succeeds is in showing only flashes of the child’s corporeal shape, as if possibly in our imagination seen from the corner of our eyes, leaving us not sure if we in fact saw it at all. What lingers in the mind are the little minor movements in the corner of the screen, such as the empty space behind a character during a close-up shot.
Helping to uncover the real culprit behind the school’s hauntings is paranormal investigator Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), a young and intelligent woman who’s made a career of debunking supernatural phenomena. Set in England a few years after the end of World War I, this is a period considered part of the first wave of feminism, and also a time when science was rapidly flourishing to dispel many commonly held superstitions. Nevertheless, belief in the mystical, psychic and occult was quite common. Hall is excellent as a determined, independent and possibly atheist woman with a preference for empirical evidence, yet those soulful, round brown eyes of hers can’t hide the wounded, mournful person that’s practically on the verge of bursting into tears. As the plot progresses, her penchant for facts guiding her judgment are put through a grueling test, and she soon discovers that she has a deep connection with the house.
The best part of ‘The Awakening’ is Hall’s character, both as a skeptic who confronts the real deal and as a woman who has yet to confront the ghosts of her past. The story of a professional debunker exposing hoaxes and charlatans wherever possible, caught in a situation where she might have to admit to the existence of ghosts, is one that really fascinates an unabashed skeptic like myself. The imagination races with the possibilities of what it would take to frighten a non-believer. Sadly, Murphy’s film unravels into the preposterously silly in the final moments. A sudden maniacal twist, à la ‘The Others’ and ‘The Sixth Sense’, is satisfyingly unexpected and unforeseen, and that’s probably where the filmmakers should have ended things. Instead, they pile on the twists, one right after the other like false conclusions, prolonging things until one final, completely unnecessary twist is achieved. Up until that point, however, the movie is a great, spine-chilling treat to watch in the dark.