Archive for the Movie reviews Category

Review of “I Saw the Devil”

Posted in Movie reviews on July 31, 2012 by Peter S

Choi Min-sik, Oh San-ha (photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

For years, I have had a love/hate relationship with Asian horror films. Lately, the relationship has gotten much better, but I had to put in a lot of effort to get it to this point. Initially, the trouble started around the time when “Ringu” and “Ju-on” ( and their American equivalents “The Ring” and “The Grudge”) became popular. I liked the visual style, atmosphere, and the serious tone, but I felt that the storyline in both of those films was just “eh”. That’s the only way I could sum it up, by shrugging my shoulders and saying “eh”. They were decent films and well made, but I felt that the stories were commonplace and were not all that impressive – or scary for that matter. I know I am a finicky audience member because I have seen a lot of horror films and I like my horror to be off-of-the-beaten-path, but even so, I didn’t get what all of the fuss over Asian horror was about.

So, I continued along and tried a few Asian films every now and then. I watched the Hong Kong version of “The Eye” and I felt “eh” about that too. I watched “The Host” and I wasn’t totally happy with that either. Not a bad film, but it lacked a solid identity. It tried to be an infection film and a monster movie, but it mainly turned out to be a well-made Sy-Fy Channel/Asylum movie. Although, “The Host” did have an original storyline and didn’t have the prerequisite “-oid”, “dino-“, “mega-“, or “vs” in the title.

Despite my frustration, I pressed on and dug a little deeper. I watched “Reincarnation” (one of the original After Dark Horrorfest films) and I thought it was better that what I had been watching but it still wasn’t spectacular. Shortly after, I watched “3 Extremes” (the first one) and I actually liked it. The film contained three bizarre and interesting stories that were about something other than ghosts enacting revenge by crawling out of TVs, walls, and bathtubs (yes, I know, one tale is about revenge, but it is revenge performed by a human psychopath).

Then came the day when a friend showed me “Battle Royale”. Finally, I was fulfilled by an Asian horror film and I began to realize what all of the fuss was about. My friend actually set me on the right course and told me that I had to dig even deeper. He explained that the popular films coming out of Asia were the ones that had mass appeal for a mass American audience. They weren’t necessarily the best that Asian horror has to offer. He was right. There were some incredible Asian horror films out there and one in particular changed my whole attitude towards the subgenre.

About a year ago, I saw “Oldboy” for the first time. It totally floored me. It was the best Asian horror film that I had seen (it is much more than horror, but that’s the easiest way to put it). It’s epic, disturbing, beautiful, and the story is totally enthralling. I loved it so much that I considered it to the best South Korean horror film That is… until now. Until I watched “I Saw the Devil”. Now, I consider “Oldboy” to be one of the best horror films to come out of South Korea.

Kim In-seo (photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

“I Saw the Devil” is a film from South Korean director, Kim Jee-woon. It is about a highly-trained government agent (played by Lee Byung-hun) whose pregnant wife is murdered by a serial killer (played by Choi Min-sik). The agent is devastated and after taking some vacation time, he begins to track down his wife’s killer. The agent finally catches up to the killer, right before he claims another female victim. The agent beats the killer senseless and injures him, but lets the killer live. When the killer comes to, he starts to realize what is going on. The rest of the film is about the hunter becoming the hunted and as this plays out, the nature of revenge is fully explored.

First off, one of the strong points of the film is that it is not too “heady” or preachy in its exploration of revenge. The agent is torn up by his wife’s murder and he wishes to enact revenge on the killer. However, it gets to the point where the agent is almost reluctant to keep going, almost wishing for someone to tell him to stop. There’s a nice scene where he actually breaks down in tears and you get the sense that he’s thinking, “What the hell am I doing? Is this what I wanted? Am I satisfied now?” The film poses many interesting questions like that and it is done in an entertaining way.

As far as the serial killing goes, it is familiar territory but it is very well-done. The killer’s mother and father think that he is strange but don’t know about his hidden life as a killer. He is a cannibal and he is friends with other killers who are cannibals. He kills simply out of lust for the killing and it seems like he can’t stop. However, the really interesting thing about the serial killer is that he doesn’t care about any human and he really has nothing to lose. As the film progresses, this becomes a dilemma for the agent and the following questions are posed: What do you take away from a killer who cares about nothing? How do you inflict pain and loss on this guy?

Those are interesting thoughts and the superb acting helps bring those thoughts to the surface. Lee Byung-hun (as the agent) has a nice discipline and stoicism about him that sets up some powerful emotion moments where he breaks down. He is highly focused on his mission but you can see that it is torturing him on the inside. Choi Min-sik (as the killer) is awesome and he is a thrill to watch. I did say that the serial killer content is familiar, but Min-sik’s acting makes it interesting and fresh. He has the perfect combination of charm, a friendly face, and the bloodlust of predatory animal. Despite some predictability in the overall film, Min-sik has an unpredictable quality where you are not sure what he is going to do in each situation. Plus, you forget all about his character in “Oldboy”. He is that good in this. These two main actors also have a fantastic supporting cast, which brings out the best in this film.

Lee Byung-hun (photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

Yes, this is predominantly a thinking man’s horror film and there is a lot of “meat” to it. However, another strength of the film is that it still manages to deliver thrills and horror. It has a very nice balance which runs from the “high” philosophical musings of revenge down to the graphic, depraved violence of the lowest level of humanity. There is something for everyone in this film – you get both substance and style.

One incredible scene – that I have to draw attention to – demonstrates that sub-human, depraved type of violence. It’s after one of the agent’s encounters with the killer. After escaping and making it to the nearby highway, the killer hails a taxi that just happens to be travelling on the lonesome stretch of road. After chatting with the driver and passenger for few moments, the killer makes his intentions known and he proceeds to stab both of them to death. As he is stabbing the two men, the camera follows the action by moving around the whole frame of the cab (it looks like they constructed the interior of a cab on set and slowly rotated it as the camera was rolling). The blood spray is horrific, the violence is jarring, and it’s a lovely scene. In fact, it’s one of the best kill scenes that I’ve ever experienced in a horror film. It’s beautiful and it is a nice contrast to the thought-provoking material of the film.

As one can tell, I highly recommend “I Saw the Devil”. It is epic, it is much more than horror, it crosses many genres, gives excellent food for thought, gives some gory thrills, the cinematography is flawless, and it leaves you feeling satisifed with the experience. The only drawbacks are the predictability, the typical background of the killer, and the ending  – which felt more like an epilogue then a climax. But after thinking about it, the ending does make a lot of sense because it fits in with the overall message of the film, regarding the nature of revenge. See that, I’m still thinking about the film. “I Saw the Devil” definitely sticks with you and it is worth every moment of your time.

Review and Quick Byte by Peter Syslo  

Review of “Scary Tales”

Posted in Movie reviews on July 12, 2012 by Peter S

“Scary Tales” is the latest film from Geno McGahee and X Posse Productions. It is a horror anthology that is comprised of four individual stories plus a fifth “wraparound” story. The film is based upon the following premise: four high school friends in a remote cabin tell scary stories in a “hey, I heard about this one guy across town…” kind of way. If you are a fan of 1970s and 1980s horror anthologies, you will notice that the style is very similar to those types of films. Actually, “Scary Tales” is a reshoot/reimagining of an earlier unreleased version of the film, by McGahee and X Posse.

The first tale is called “The Bully” and it is about a man who comes face-to-face with the consequences of his violent tendencies. The second is “Curiosity Kills”, which focuses on two cousins who are on the run after a family incident. They stumble upon a house in the woods that looks abandoned, but they discover it may still have occupants. The third is a genre-crossing story called “Majority Rules”. It’s a mix of crime caper and horror that’s about a poker game gone wrong. The fourth is “The Bridge” – my personal favorite –  which is about a small-town bridge that may or may not be cursed by an evil presence. The fifth and final tale is called “The Cabin”. This is the wraparound story that involves the four friends (from the beginning of the film) telling their scary stories.

There’s no sense beating around the bush with this one, so I’ll get right to the point: I really liked “Scary Tales” and I think that it is McGahee’s best film.

Since the film is about storytelling, I think that I’ll start with the writing. McGahee pulled out all the stops with his writing and crafted a refined, interesting, and airtight script. He even injects some social commentary into it by incorporating aspects of the current, lousy economy (job market, behind on mortgage, etc). Overall, he took a textured, multi-layered approach to writing each of the five tales and that is one of the main reasons why “Scary Tales” is his best work.

I’ll use “The Bridge” to give you an example of the excellent writing. One thing that I loved about “The Bridge” was the fact that McGahee not only wrote a story about a cursed bridge but he went deeper and actually wrote an entire mythology behind the cursed bridge (like the killer’s back story in a slasher film). There were period-consistent images of the bankers and the railroad tycoons who originally built the bridge and the footage had the look of a historical documentary. That was incredible and you don’t often see that quality and depth in independent productions.

Along with the stories, McGahee also employed finely-tuned dialogue throughout the film. The way that he wrote the dialogue left room for each actor to express emotion rather than just deliver lines. I have always liked McGahee’s dialogue – it is very intelligent and he says a lot – but there were times in the past where there was too much dialogue for some scenes. This time, McGahee took a pinpointed approach – said more with less words – and this allowed each scene to “breathe” a little. This, in turn, made the whole film seem more “real”, because it reflected how people really talk and interact with one another.

One nice example of the refined dialogue was in “Curiosity Kills”. There is a scene where the two cousins are talking by a campfire. Each has a line or two of dialogue, then there is a second or two of silence, then the dialogue picks up again. During that bit of silence, you see facial expressions and you, the viewer, get to digest what was said. This was very effective because it demonstrated a “natural” type of interaction (one person speaks – the other listens, thinks about what was said, and then responds). As a byproduct of the dialogue, I felt that “Curiosity Kills” contained some of the best acting in the film.

On the whole, “Scary Tales” has some of the best acting that I have seen in a McGahee film. I know that he worked with some new actors on this, who were all very good and added greatly to the film. However, I also want to give credit to his returning/veteran actors and note that they have really grown as performers. Again, I think that McGahee’s script helped with this because it seemed like all of the actors were very comfortable with the material. That, in turn, made performances seem genuine. Actually, the theme of the whole “Scary Tales” experience is just that: the actors, Geno McGahee, and the crew have become comfortable, confident, and have come-into-their-own.

Moving on to the technical aspects of “Scary Tales”, I thought that the cinematography and lighting were excellent. McGahee and crew have become very skilled at night shots; they are well-lit, they have clarity, yet they still demonstrate that natural beauty of the night. Overall, the camera was used very skillfully and really told the tale, visually (also a result of great editing). This is especially noticeable when two characters are interacting. The camera shifts from one to the other, exemplifying the interaction rather than the camera focusing on both at the same time.

The set design and locations were great, which also strengthened the visual element of the film. “The Bridge” was my favorite example of this, with the wonderful historical shots and the imposing look of the actual bridge.

The effects and make-up looked great and worked extremely well. There was also some CGI, but it was well-done and looked real. McGahee and crew know how to work with effects and seem to use the less-is-more approach when filming/editing an effects shot. The effect is clearly seen but the pull-away or cut preserves the “realness” of the effect.

Finally, the music added nice atmosphere and provided some pacing to the film. Actually, the film seemed “fuller” with a score, enhancing the overall “Scary Tales” experience. Yet another reason for the professional quality of this film.

After all of that, I really don’t have much criticism. Creatively, Scary Tales is excellent. The only problems I would mention are a few minor things, such as: the sound level occasionally is uneven (a few very loud door slams) and a line of dialogue here and there sounds a little forced. But, that’s it… and that’s just being nitpicky.

With “Scary Tales”, McGahee and crew have made it to the next level. For an independent company, the quality and craftsmanship is amazing. It is very impressive work and it doesn’t feel like five separate stories – it is a unified whole. Every shot has meaning and nothing is superfluous. While I was watching it, I kind of forgot that I was reviewing it. I was thoroughly enjoying it and was immersed in the experience. When you get right down to it, I think that’s the mark of a good film. When you don’t have to try to watch it. When it just pulls you in and you want to see what happens next.

Review and Quick Byte by Peter Syslo

Review of “The Innkeepers”

Posted in Movie reviews on June 23, 2012 by Peter S

  Sara Paxton and Pat Healy (photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

As a horror fan, I have to admit that sometimes I don’t know what I want. There, I said it. Feels good to get that off my chest. Often, I hear myself saying that movies in the 1980s were fun, movies in the 1970s were intelligent, remakes are unbelievably annoying, and everything made from 2000-present is mediocre. Those are generalizations that I use to express frustration, but I am reasonable enough to know that when I say those things, I may be full-of-it. I do like some modern horror films and, realistically, there are good and bad films (also overrated films) in every decade, from independent and major studios. So, where does that leave me? What is it that I want in a horror film? Also, what is my point?

Well, I’ve come to the conclusion that the frustration I often feel, as a horror fan, stems from the fact that I am looking for something that is interesting or engaging. I am looking for something that is unique and that stirs some type of reaction within me. You could see how that makes it difficult to say exactly what I want in a horror film. In past decades, I could say that I liked a specific sub-genre of horror, such as slasher films. But these days, that no longer applies. It’s gotten to the point where I take every film on an individual basis. I may or may not like a film and I feel no obligation to any subgenre, studio, director, or “rave reviews” from other critics. My final statement on this matter is: I watch what I want and I like what I like. If it’s interesting, I will be happy. Now, on to the review.

I feel that I needed that explanation because Ti West’s “The Innkeepers” is a good example of what I want in horror. The film is a traditional haunting story that centers on a girl and guy who work at an old, Victorian type of inn. The two are also amateur paranormal investigators (with the video cameras, audio recorders, etc) and they are looking to get some footage before the inn closes for good, in the next few days. They decide to investigate a legend about a woman who mysteriously died at the inn, years ago. Along the way, they both have some strange experiences and it gets even stranger when a semi-retired actress, who is into spiritual healing, comes to stay the night. As the story unfolds, the three of them find out if the inn is really haunted or if it’s just collective paranoia.

When I said that “The Innkeepers” is a traditional haunting story, I meant that it is similar to a literary type of haunting story. Something in the vein of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”. Film-wise, I think it’s a throwback to the classic horror films of the 1930s and 1940s. What this means is that most of the film is a build-up of suspense and most of the conflict and action takes place in the last 20-30 minutes. Some call it a “slow burn” type of film and Ti West is known for this style of filmmaking.

Before I go on, I do want to say that I am a fan of Ti West. I really liked “The House of the Devil”, “The Roost” has a certain charm to it, and I actually liked what he did with “Cabin Fever 2”. He always delivers a well-developed story, he crafts intelligent and fresh dialogue, he creates interesting non-stereotypical characters, and he seems to have some reverence/respect for the horror-works of the past.

But, the thing I enjoy most about West’s films is his realism. Not pessimism, realism. In a way I consider him to be the anti- John Hughes because his characters don’t have all of their dreams come true and don’t always win in the end. However, they do learn something about themselves and they develop as human beings. Don’t get me wrong, I love John Hughes but his films are fantasy depictions of human interaction – similar to what Frank Capra depicted in his films. Actually, there’s a funny scene in an episode of “Cheers” where the gang is watching “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Norm says something like, “trust me. when you’re in trouble with the bank people do not come running over with money”. Ti West is that realistic voice of Norm Peterson. West explores common human experiences of success and failure, in a very likeable way. Again, he is not dark and depressing, he is realistic.

That realism is present in “The Innkeepers”, but unfortunately, the film didn’t totally satisfy me. My problem with the film is that it took a little too long to “get going” and I started to lose interest. Overall, it was a well-crafted and intelligent film but it lacked the basic component of a horror film: horror. I don’t mean gore, blood, zombies, and masked killers. I mean the horrifying thing that should be the basis of a horror film. In this case, it was the ghost of the woman who died at the inn. “The Innkeepers” kept hinting at the ghost, had a great build-up up to it, and did have a couple of ghost scenes, but it wasn’t enough. Overall, I don’t think that the “payoff” was equivalent to the wait.

For that reason, the film was very frustrating. I was really looking forward to it and it was one of those films that I wanted to like more than I actually did. It just needed a little more – just a little more – ghost content and it would have been a fulfilling experience. It’s also frustrating because 85% of the film was outstanding. Here’s a rundown of the positives: all of the acting was excellent; the dialogue was superb because it was very realistic; the characters were incredibly well-developed, each had strengths and weaknesses, each was going through some sort of transition in their lives, and each went through a “changing” moment; the setting of the inn was perfect; the special effects and look of the ghost were exciting and unique; and lastly, the story was very strong and well thought-out. If just a little more heat was added to the slow-burn, the film would have been closer to 100% outstanding.

Despite my opinion, “The Innkeepers” is still a better film than the majority of current horror films. I just wanted more from it. However, it did give me most of what I am looking for in a horror film. West is one of my favorite modern horror filmmakers and it is possible that he may be the one who comes out with that genre-changing horror flick. As horror fans, we’re all chasing that dragon.

Review and Quick Byte by Peter Syslo

Review of “American Horror Story”: The Best Show on Television?

Posted in Movie reviews on June 5, 2012 by Peter S

From the moment I heard that Ryan Murphy, the creator of “Nip Tuck”, was doing a full-on horror series for the FX Network, I thanked the old gods and I patiently awaited the October 2011 premiere. I was a fan of the consistently exploitative “Nip/Tuck” and one of the reasons I liked that series was the underlying “horror” that it contained. Specifically, the horrific parts of it dealt with the lengths people that would go to, all in the pursuit of beauty.

To be honest, I was a bit skeptical when I heard that “American Horror Story” was going to be a haunted-house type of story. After 15 years-or-so of bland “haunting” films and a slew of ghost-themed television shows, I really wasn’t in the mood for yet another one. But, my skepticism was put to rest because Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuck, and the fantastic cast of AHS managed to craft a fresh and engaging show that surpassed all my expectations. Aside from a few shows (like “Dexter”) on the premium channels,  I think that AHS is currently the best show on television.

At this point, most people have heard something or other about the series, so I am not going to discuss every detail of it. Though, I will say that the show is based upon a combination of horror films, urban legends, and real-life killings. For example, the larger “haunted-house” story is interspersed with things like the Richard Speck nurse-killings, the Black Dahlia mystery, and a version of the old Bloody Mary mirror ritual – to name a few. No, it’s nothing new but I feel that the familiarity of the content actually works in the show’s favor.

That leads me to my next point: the strength of AHS lies mainly in the style and execution. Because it has a very familiar foundation, I feel that the series can easily unfold and venture into unpredictable areas. Basically, it has a blank canvas so there are no limits for the visuals, characters, and other aspects of the show. The creators really built upon the traditional, archetypal haunting story and in the process successfully rebooted a tired horror sub-genre. It is vibrant, complex, textured, and focuses on every little detail – from the seductive charm of the creepy Victorian house right down to the inspired and unusual musical cues. Contrary to the “American” in the title, I feel that the show is actually done in more of a European or Asian style. And you know what? It is actually better than most American horror films that I have seen over the past 15 years.

One of the best things about AHS is that it dares to go into the territory of “scary” subject matter, where most people feel uncomfortable. A few examples of the “scary” subject matter are: a school-shooter; an appearance-oriented, dramatic, politically-incorrect, baby boomer who is an abusive Joan Crawford type; a drug-addicted doctor who performs abortions in the basement of the house; a kidnapped and dismembered baby; and a cheating man who burns his wife and kids alive. All of the characters in the series have some hidden “horror” in their life that is eating away at them and destroying all of the people around them. The truly “scary” part is that things like the aforemtioned happen in real life – in some neighborhood, in some household, behind closed doors.

In fact, a recurring theme of the series is: keeping up the appearance of normality, just for the sake of appearance, is one of the most destructive things in life. AHS certainly tears off every aspect of “appearance”, jumps right in, and gets to the truth.  The whole point of the show, I feel, is the comparison between the horror of fiction and the horror of reality. In a thought-provoking, yet subtle way, the series poses the following question: “What is more scary, ghost and haunted houses or the things that go on in real life, in the newspaper headlines?”

After all is said and done, I really don’t have any criticism of the show. It’s as perfect as a television series can get and it sets the quality bar very high. For the second season, I understand that the series is going to take place in a whole new setting (some type of institution on the east coast). Also, some of the same actors will be returning but they won’t be playing the same characters. Essentially, it is a new story with some of the same actors. Yes, it seemed a little odd to me at first – and risky – but I think the creators can pull it off.

To recap, “American Horror Story” is an intelligent, shocking, honest, scary, and entertaining series that is addictive and very fulfilling. For a cable television show, the creators and FX took a lot of chances and I am very happy for that. Along with the “uncomfortable” subject matter, there is a strong sexual component (heterosexual, homosexual, fetishes) which definitely makes it an adult-oriented series. As with “Nip/Tuck”, kudos to the FX network for airing the series and not apologizing for it. My only complaint is that I wanted a little more resolution and explanation (some, not all) of the first season. But, I guess that could also be a compliment because the show always left me wanting more.


Review and Quick Byte by Peter Syslo

Review of “Family Secret”

Posted in Movie reviews on April 18, 2012 by Peter S


“Family Secret” is the 2011 offering from filmmaker Geno McGahee, Xposse Productions, and Webhead Entertainment. The film is about a recently deceased grandmother who apparently comes back from the grave and starts killing off her family members. Her grandson, Geno, is thrust into the center of it all as he tries to uncover the true reason for the killings.

Story-wise, the film is a slasher and giallo combination. I know that slashers and giallos are closely related, but they do have basic differences. In a slasher film, you know who the killer is and the reason for the killing spree (the backstory) is established near the beginning of the film. Most of it is about revealing the survivor and his/her connection to the killer. In a giallo, you don’t know who the killer is and several suspects are introduced throughout the film. The majority of it is about revealing the identity of the killer and his/her backstory.

The reason I consider “Family Secret” to be a slasher/giallo combo is that it weaves in and out of both sub-genres, successfully. You get the slasher killings but you also have the mysterious elements of a giallo. If you need a specific frame of reference, think of the film as equal parts John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava, and Roman Polanski. As always, McGahee tells an in-depth story and, in that sense, “Family Secret” works very well.

However, my main criticism is that there seemed to be an emotional disconnect throughout the entire film. I feel that this created an imbalance and it took away from the overall work. I realize that everyone worked hard on the production and I am not faulting any specific actor or crew member.  Rather, there are three “global” reasons for the disconnect. Mind you, I didn’t want the emotional drama of a soap opera. I only wanted what was necessary to flesh-out the characters and make them real.

First, I thought there were too many “main” characters. I recognize that McGahee was trying to establish possible suspects for the killer and he was also exploring the dysfunctional relationships in that family, but some of the characters blended together and it became a little confusing. Most of the characters had a sketchy moral background and it got to the point where everyone was a possible suspect. I think that the film would have worked better (especially in the first half) if only a few characters were defined and were made unique, in regard to one another. Those family relationships could have been explored more effectively and I feel it would have created a stronger emotional component to the film (a lot of potential there).

For example, the character of Geno was one of the more distinct and memorable characters because he was clearly established as the peacekeeper, the rational one, and the problem-solver of the family. Once he was defined, some ambiguity was introduced and the character became a plausible suspect for the killings. I wanted to see more of that type of process, albeit with less characters.

Second,  I feel that the set design could have been used more for defining and clarifying characters. I realize that there are budget and time constraints, but I thought that there were a lot of missed opportunities for sculpting characters and creating atmosphere for the overall film. I believe that this also would have fostered more emotional connectivity because everyone may have been more “in-character” if the surrounding environment encouraged that.

One standout example of this was Geno’s work cubicle. Yes, Geno was a well-written and defined character but I also felt that he wasn’t fleshed out and made real (with emotion and depth). His cubicle was a prime opportunity for making him real and I point this out because his cubicle was bare/gray and his computer screen was always blank. Some clippings from Geno’s past work – maybe about the child molester investigation – could be hanging up. Maybe there could be some past-due utility bills laying on his desk, implying that he sacrifices his personal needs for his family and work. Maybe he could have a weird message in his email about conspiracies, etc. Maybe some generic, safe pictures of trees and landscapes could show that he is a status-quo guy, which would set up the fact that he needs to take charge, put his foot down, step out of his comfort zone, and “rock the family boat” so to speak. As you can see, there were many set-design possibilities, for that scene and others.

In all fairness, there were a few instances where small aspects of set design (intentional or not) made a huge impact. In one scene, early-on in the film, two family members are talking in front of a mantle, in one of the homes. On the mantle, behind one character, there is a picture of an older man and it looks like the man is eerily looking over one character’s shoulder. The implication being: a family elder is keeping an eye on things and that character, whom he is watching, is a servant to the watchful eye. Another scene is when Geno and another character go to the grandfather’s house. On the kitchen wall there is something that looks like an eye chart (you know, with the letters gradually getting smaller). Again, it was a small thing but it added a little mystery to the grandfather character and also added some “cryptic” atmosphere to the overall film.

Third, I felt that the characters all delivered very interesting dialogue, but that dialogue wasn’t delivered emotionally. Most of the characters’ acting/presence did not fit the dialogue or the overall scene and this is one of the main reasons for the emotional disconnect of the film. Overall, I felt there was too much dialogue and it would have been better if less was said and more was expressed, through acting and presence. Throughout the film, actors would describe an emotion by saying something like, “hey, you can’t talk to me like that. I’m part of this family”  but they wouldn’t convey that emotion. Instead of saying “hey, you can’t talk to me like that”, I think it would have been better – for the scene and the overall film – if that line was dropped and the “hey…” anger/defensiveness was expressed in the “I’m…” line. In other words, all of the “hey…” feeling would be expressed through tone of voice, body language, and facial expression while the actor said the line “I’m part of this family”.

Before I go on, I do want to point out one scene that worked extremely well and stuck in my mind. This scene contained the three things that I wanted more of, in the film. In the scene, Geno’s female co-worker is hitting on him and basically asking him to cheat on his wife. The boss hears this and fires the girl. She runs out to the parking lot and the sex offender (that Geno investigated in the past) starts harassing her. Geno runs up and defends her, implying-but-not-saying that he won’t cheat on his wife but he does care about the girl as a human being. He wishes her well and offers to help her if she needs anything. The scene closes with her embracing him and the camera focuses on her face, over Geno’s shoulder. In that strange moment, Geno finds a true “family” relationship that he never found in his real family. I might be reading into it, but this scene is a great example of what McGahee, the crew, and the actors can do. It was one of the high points of the film and it said a lot without actually saying it in dialogue. Great scene.

Despite those three issues, I felt the movie really “kicked-into-gear” in the second half. I enjoyed the design/look of the old-lady killer and McGahee’s musical score employed an effective killer motif – very much in the style of John Carpenter. In fact, all of the musical cues were spot-on and supported the scenes – McGahee is quite good at pairing music with film.

The special effects were another strong point and all looked pretty good. Some on-camera effects, some off-camera, and some quick cut-shots were used, but the blood and gore looked very real. The “killer” aspect of the film really came together in the bowling alley scene, where it was pure slasher. This harkened back to 1980s “party” slashers where the killer was targeting groups of victims in an enclosed area, rather than picking them off one by one in various locations (Halloween II, Nightmare on Elm St. 2, Popcorn, My Bloody Valentine, etc). That part was a lot of fun.

Aside from the sets, the external locations (got to see some of the Massachusetts area) and the outside/night shots were great. I enjoyed the view of the church, which was similar to the imposing image of the funeral home in the Phantasm films. Director of Photography John Golden framed all the shots very well, the lighting was good, and the multiple camera angles really worked during character interaction. Also, kudos to skillful editing by Forris Day Jr. (who also played Geno). Because of their attention to detail, I thought that this was one of McGahee’s best filmed and edited works.

Anyway, “Family Secret” has a great story and solid production, but I don’t feel that it totally reached its full potential. McGahee and the Xposse crew have progressed and the production aspects of their films have gotten better, but the characters, set design, and dialogue need to be more in-balance with those stronger elements. I did enjoy watching “Family Secret” and I am looking forward to watching it again for the DVD commentary and special features. It’s definitely worth watching and I think fans of slashers, giallos, and conspiracy films will appreciate it. For more information on the film, visit and

Review and Quick Byte by Peter Syslo

Zombies on TV: Review of “The Walking Dead” and “Dead Set”

Posted in Movie reviews on November 23, 2010 by Peter S

Sitcoms are back and reality shows are more popular than ever. I’m not criticizing those types of shows, I’m just making the point that the television climate has changed over the past two years and it seems like the high-concept show is gone, for now. Personally, I feel it too. My taste in television has changed.

I know that “The Event” and “Fringe” are two high-concept shows, but I haven’t watched either because I don’t want to get involved in the ambiguity, especially after being emotionally abused by “Lost” for six years. I know that it is a foolish reason for not giving a show a chance, but I am just not in the mood for painfully-long storyline arcs which, inevitably, lead to the beginnings of new arcs. What I feel like, right now, is a straightforward show that is event-driven or plot-driven. I want simple characters in plausible situations and I want the arcs to have some resolution, once in a while.

AMC’s “The Walking Dead” appears to be a show that can meet my needs. It is only four episodes in, but I do like what I see. It doesn’t break any new ground, as far as the zombie subgenre goes, but it does give the viewer great-looking zombies, a shocking amount of gore and tense survival situations. The typical zombie rules apply: the virus explanation, the contagious zombie bite and the good-old headshot (as the way to kill a zombie). But, my main criticism of the show is that everything in it has been done before. The show is finely-tuned, beautifully shot and it is a nice encapsulation of 40 years of zombie cinema, but it needs a little something more to make it “can’t-miss television”.

I am not familiar with the graphic novels, upon which the show is based, so I do have to give it a break. However, the derivative content of the episodes is definitely noticeable, by anyone who is familiar with the zombie subgenre. Episode One was an imitation/combination of “28 Days Later” and “I Am Legend”. Episode Two was a lot like “Dawn Of The Dead”, “28 Days Later” and “I Am Legend”. Episode Three was a strange combination of “Saw”, any zombie film, and an akward version of “Sex and the City” (the vibrator conversation was terribly written – usually, I like that sort of thing). Lastly, Episode Four was a lot like Episode Two and its influences, but it did become interesting towards the end. My point is that I enjoy seeing the influences in the story but I am still waiting for more original content.

In its defense, I really liked one part of Episode Two. The trooper/hero and another survivor wanted to sneak out of a surrounded building, to get to a nearby truck. So they killed a zombie, inside, and dismembered it. The two then smeared the “guts” all over their clothes so that they would smell like the zombies (they discovered that zombies have a keen sense of smell for live humans). After the smearing, the two made their way to the truck. More “unique” scenarios like that are what the show needs.

Overall, the acting is quite good, but another criticism I have is that I am not emotionally invested in any of the characters, yet. I started to loose interest during Episode Three, because I really didn’t care about the trooper/hero finding his family. It was nice to see that arc complete itself, but I hope that the show doesn’t delve fully into the dramatic side of things. I’m not in the mood for it; I just want simple characters and a straightforward, original story.

The part of the show that does keep me coming back for more is that it brings forth the message that most humans will band together and help one another, in a large-scale survival situation. It has a realistic view of human nature, but it does entertain the idea that there is good in everyone and that people can always change. I like that bit of optimism and its a nice contrast to the gloom and doom of it all. Despite all that I said about lack of originality and general boredom, that overall message is a pleasant surprise.

On the other side of the dial, the five-episode British miniseries “Dead Set” appeared on IFC this Halloween. It seemed to tell the same tale as “The Walking Dead”, only with a more pessimistic view. Just like “The Walking Dead”, “Dead Set” is very derivative, with the whole five-episode span being pretty much a re-imagining of the orignal “Night of the Living Dead”.

The premise of the show is as follows: On the final eviction night of British “Big Brother”, zombies start to appear and everyone clamors to survive. The “Big Brother” cast-mates are inside the locked-down house and are unaware of the outbreak, until a few people from the outside make their way into the house. That’s the whole five-episode miniseries. It’s just a group of people trapped in a house with zombies attacking from the outside.

That’s not to say that it is a bad show – it’s not. In fact, “Dead Set” is a well-produced and polished show. Like “The Walking Dead”, it adheres to the traditional zombie rules, with one exception: the zombies run fast. They are pretty intense-looking, like the “28 Days Later” zombies and the action is more frenetic/violent as a result of the hand-held, shaky, POV-style camerawork. There is a lot of gruesome material and a lot of gore, similar to the Italian style of zombie films. The headshot reigns supreme as a manner of disposing of zombies and the virus explanation is present. But, aside from the urgent pace and the “Big Brother” setting, it really doesn’t add anything new to the zombie subgenre. Like “The Walking Dead”, it can be tedious at times.

I do admit, the action is great and the overall message of the show is thought-provoking (humans are their own worst enemy, humans are already zombies, etc.), but my attention wavered a bit because (again) I really wasn’t interested in any of the characters or the average zombie scenarios. In fact, the only truly interesting character was the cutthroat producer, whose self-preservation was top priority. But even that character wasn’t anything new; that type is often seen in zombie films and horror films, in general.

I guess what I am trying to say about both “The Walking Dead” and “Dead Set” is that I like the shows, but I don’t love them. I enjoy the zombie traditions, but I would like to seem some originality. In essence, they are both the same show. Whatever one you prefer is a matter of personal taste. If you want a faster, darker, meaner zombie story, Britain’s “Dead Set” would be the best choice. If you want a slow, cinematic, hopeful tale, then “The Walking Dead” is the show for you. As for me? For some reason, I have a good feeling about “The Walking Dead”. It hasn’t “hit its stride” yet and it deserves a chance to do so.


Review and Bytes by Peter Syslo



Review of “A Nightmare On Elm Street (2010)”

Posted in Movie reviews on October 10, 2010 by Peter S

I went into “A Nightmare On Elm Street” hoping that it would be a decent remake and that it would just be a decent film, period. Well, it turns out that it failed in its mission, on both fronts. Strangely, the worst thing about the movie was that it was a little boring. Yeah, boring. Some of the films in the franchise haven’t been that hot but I can’t say that any of them were particularly dull, not even part 5 “The Dream Child”. Though I am annoyed by Freddy and his “zingers” in the later sequels, I find that there is always something enjoyable about a “Nightmare” film. The effects are always unique, the kill scenes are interesting, the dream sequences are surreal, and the Freddy character is engaging. Even “Freddy vs. Jason” was enjoyable to watch, though it didn’t quite capture the spirit of the original films. In essence, that is the whole problem with the 2010 “Nightmare” remake. It just wasn’t enjoyable to watch.

One of the main reasons that I disliked the film was that it boiled the Freddy character down to make him relevent and topical, in regards to 2010 society. So what did they do exactly? They made Freddy a creepy pedophile. No, not a child murderer, a pedophile. In the original 1984 film, it was sort of implied that he was a pedophile, along with being a child murderer. Craven didn’t come out and say it point blank, but you kind of got that feeling from it. The remake out and out based its whole premise upon the pedophile angle and it just ruined the film. That is the main reason why it wasn’t enjoyable. I am not making light of pedophilia in any way; it is a horrible thing. But, I also don’t want to watch a movie based upon it. For example, look at “Hard Candy”. For all purposes, it was a good, well-made film but it is not something that I have the urge to rewatch every now and then. I don’t find myself saying, “Yeah guys, come on over! We’re watching “Hard Candy” again. We’re gonna order some Chinese food and play Uno and…” That’s exactly how I feel about this remake. I don’t think that I will want to watch it again. Actually, “Hard Candy” would be a much better choice, regarding the subject matter.

Along with that unsettling aspect, there were other things that failed to make it a good film. Because they didn’t make Freddy a murderer (when he was alive), the whole “parents-cornering him-and-burning-him” was slightly askew. I understand that the parents were horrified and angry but it really didn’t make sense. If he were a murderer, you would see that the extreme punishment was appropriate and justified. But in this case, it almost makes Freddy look like a victim. I know that they were trying to force him out of hiding, with the fire, but there is no mention of the legal system failing, etc. that was part of the original. This is an example of one of the many “gaps” in the movie which disturbed the overall flow of it.

Another shortcoming was that Freddy’s dream power was never clearly explained and no “rules” governing the dreams were established. In the original, early on in the film, you “get” that if you’re harmed in the dream, you are harmed in real life. You get that these are no ordinary nightmares and you have a sense of why this guy Freddy is doing this in the dreams. In the remake, there are spots where some of the dream content is explored, such as the tie-in with the legend of The Pied Piper and Nancy’s ability to pull him out into reality. But overall, it didn’t make total sense why Freddy became a dream killer… other than the fact that the parents shouldn’t have been vigilantes. As for the glove, you don’t get that feeling of impending danger from it as you did with the original. In this one, he mainly uses it as sort of a prop to scare the kids. Of course, there are scenes where you do see him cutting with it, but it is a long run to each of those kills, with a lot of melodrama to sit through, in-between.

On a positive note, I did like Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy. I thought that he did a good job with the character and he did make him “his own”. He looked like a real burn victim but I still don’t know if that worked or not. Also, the voice was more of a softer monotone, rather than the insane nature of the original Freddy. Again, I don’t know if that worked or not but it was interesting facet of the character. One other thing that I did like was that the kids talked about sleep deprivation and the fact that at a certain point, the body will go into a coma. I thought that it was a neat idea and it was one of the brighter spots of the film. I liked the way that they used that and it was thought-provoking how Freddy could also benefit from the coma.

Well, enough already. I’ve said what I wanted to say. There are a couple of positive things about the movie, but otherwise it fell flat and it was truly boring, at times. It was a case of too much story, bland characters, not enough action, and obvious connections that ruined the suspense and intrigue. Throw the awful subject matter into that and it was a brooding, depressing experience which was a lot like a U.S. remake of an Asian horror film. Even the effects weren’t all that great. The CGI looked bad and it was most noticeable in the famous “protruding-from-the-wall-scene”. The original shot was scary and surreal. This shot in the 2010 version was contrived and looked fake  (in some cases, practical effects still look better than CGI). To be fair, there are a few startles in the movie, but overall I think that the original is scarier and is a much better film. The 2010 version is worth checking out, to see what they did with it, but I would rather stick with the original films and remember Freddy as he was, in his gratuitous glory days.

Review and Byte by Peter Syslo  


Review of the film “From The Inside”

Posted in Movie reviews on September 26, 2010 by Peter S

 “From The Inside” is the latest creation of independent filmmaker Jim Haggerty and his company, Yellow Ape Productions. Haggerty has worked mainly in the horror and exploitation genre and he proclaims that his films are “movies for the midnight hour”. In the case of FTI, I feel that his proclaimation is correct. He has truly achieved his goal of creating a midnight movie and I thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, I do think that this is his best work to date.The film is exactly like something you would see from a studio like Crown International, in the 1970s. From the lulling and beautiful opening song (which is reminiscent of 70s films where tragedy befalls innocent people) to the moral questionablility of the events that transpire, this is absolutely a drive-in, grindhouse, after-hours film which delivers what that specific type of audience craves.

I’m definitely not saying that any of the filmmaking is poor or lackluster – on the contrary. This displays a new level of maturity in Haggerty’s style and it really is a finely crafted film. He has sharpened all of his techniques and I have seen a definite progression from his earlier works to this one. The writing is good, as always, but it is taken one step further because Haggerty has specifically chosen when to let the film “breathe” a little bit and let the visuals tell the story. What I mean is that he always writes with great depth and detail and he does the same in this case. But, there are times when he holds back on the dialogue and lets the film just move forward on its own. For example, there is one scene where the two brothers are in a car and it flows nicely, because it is not overdone with dialogue. Certain points are emphasized, verbally, but it is the motion of travelling in the car which propels the plot, in that scene.

Along with that balance of visual/verbal, the acting was better and more natural in this film, as opposed to his previous films. Yes, there are still times when lines seemed a tad “forced”, but I feel that Haggerty did get the best performances out of every actor involved. Brian Haggerty is very good and very believable, as the Detective. Jae Mosc – who is almost a staple of every Jim Haggerty film – continues to be entertaining and he competently brings that “everyman” quality to his role. In fact, he really gets the viewer involved in this picture because it is very easy to place yourself in his shoes and ask, “what would I do in that situation?”. However, the standout performance of the film was by Robert Lincourt, who played Bill Baxter. This guy was genuinely creepy, in a “Deliverance”, “Texas Chainsaw”, “Last House on the Left”, “Savage Weekend”, Lenny from “Of Mice and Men” sort of way. Get my drift? He was a joy to watch because his behavior was so odd and dysfunctional (at one point, you see him cowering by a refrigerator, like an abused child). He was like the Dennis Hopper from “Blue Velvet” of the film. You weren’t sure whether he was good, bad, or both and he made me uneasy the whole time that he was on screen. The guy’s appearance, mannerisms, and overall presence was enough to cause discomfort. Like I mentioned before, a lot of the power of this movie was in what was not said.

Also enhancing the viewing experience, the locations were an integral and successful part of FTI. It was great to see Haggerty take a large portion of the story into a forest setting. He does move back to the urban backdrop, later in the film, but it was nice to see the contrast between the two. I feel that the first portion of the film wouldn’t have worked as well, if it took place in the urban enivronment. Plus, it kind of mirrors the plot in which the wooded setting creates a “lawless” arena for events and the urban setting actually becomes a safe place where normalcy, order, and morality is restored. That type of location contrast is also reminiscent of the 1970s films in this genre.

The visuals were definitely a strong point and the set design worked very well with the locations. As a viewer, I was pleased to see a real forest home, the depth of the surrounding woods, the inside of vehicles, the opening scene on board the deck of a boat, and the traditional look of a police station. To me, the story is at the heart of any film and if the story is good, I do believe that all else will survive. Ideally though, the best scenario, is when the visuals enhance and augment the story, like they did here. Kudos to the set designers and their choice of locations.

The last key element to successful visuals was the strong cinematography, courtesy of Gareth Chater. I feel that Haggerty and crew were especially meticulous with lighting and angles, this time around. Action is centered, focused, well-lit, and there really is no scene out of place. Well, there is one exception; a scene, with the detective, took place in one room and the camerawork didn’t seem to bring forth the intensity which was needed (It also went a little long and it slowed the picture a bit). But aside from that, each scene was effectively shot, the editing was very good, and elements of Haggerty’s style were kept intact. For instance, there were two camera angles which switched back and forth to each individual character during dialogue. One character would face one camera and then the other would speak directly to the other camera. I liked that and it’s another instance which displays filmmaking maturity. It involves the viewer more when that type of camera interaction is used, rather than filming the whole dialogue from a side angle, where both actors are seen simultaneously. Yes, some of that technique is still used and is essential, but the other camera angles really liven up the conversation. Specifically, some of my favorite shots were when a trio or duo of characters were deciding what to do in a tough situation. The camera was at a low angle, facing up towards the actors and it really brought forth that “what are they going to do now?” kind of feeling. Also, I do want to note that the opening cinematography was superb and was a perfect companion to the song. Actually all of the cinematography fit well with the musical cues.

“From The Inside” is definitely a film that is worth watching. Haggerty and company display skill, maturity, and good-old-fashioned storytelling – which is an essential part of any effective film. There are many twists and turns in the story (I purposely witheld any description of the plot) and the performances and craftsmenship of it make you want to see what happens next. I am actually surprised that, albeit dark subject matter and ugly human nature, the film did leave me with a positive feeling. Just like its 1970s counterparts, this had that optimism and innocence that was characterized by the opening music. It shows that life does get crazy at times, but some good things will always come out of a bad situation. There is always hope. Well done.

Review and Byte by Peter Syslo