Dark Skies (2013)

Dark Skies (2013)

The truth is out there… Are you hearing that theme song in your head yet? Yes, The X-Files did wonders for getting the concept of aliens “out there” into the public domain. It triggered an unhealthy fascination in what’s up in the skies for a lot of people. The same people (mainly guys) also developed an unhealthy obsession with Gillian Anderson. Me? I’m just fascinated with how David Duchovny looks almost exactly the same now as he did back in 1992. Whatever alien gloop he’s using on his skin, I want some! Sure, aliens have taken many forms in the movies too – from the horrific “tongue-y” xenomorphs in the Alien franchise to the little guy who’s got a really long glowing finger and is obsessed with going home – but none are more famous than the “Greys”. You know the ones: really tall, long limbs, huge black eyes… oh, and they’re grey. Think Roger from American Dad! or any alien seen in South Park. Got it? Good. So how does Dark Skies, the latest alien horror movie, deal with the deities from the sky?

The Signs of Dark Skies are evident for all to see...

The Signs of Dark Skies are evident for all to see…

Well… have you seen Signs? You know, when M. Night Shyamalan was still delivering top notch movies that you really wanted to go out and see? If you’re with me, then lift that plot up and supplant it into Dark Skies and you’ve essentially got the premise. I know what you’re thinking if you’re a regular reader: “Hey, Phage, where’s the plot summary? I don’t like change – just do things like you normally do!”… but I’m honestly not kidding when I say that Signs and Dark Skies are almost exactly the same film. Replace the farm from Signs with a suburban neighbourhood, whip out Joaquin Phoenix and Mel Gibson and replace with Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton and you’re pretty much on the money.

OK, I’ll give you a summary lest I lose you forever into the void that is the internet: Dark Skies follows the lives of Daniel and Lacy Barrett and their two young boys. Sure, they’re going through financial troubles, but that’s the least of their worries when their youngest, Sam (Kadan Rockett) starts to act peculiarly and attributes his odd behaviour to the “Sandman”. But that’s only the beginning… as soon the whole family is engulfed in what can only be described as an “extraterrestrial” experience…

Dark Skies (2013)

I’m a bit surprised actually, as I’ve made the film sound wholly more exciting than it was. The crux of the problem with Dark Skies isn’t that it’s got a bit too much in common with Signs, but the fact that the pacing is entirely off. Especially for a “horror” movie. I know that I often lament the use of loud noises, camera jerks and cheap startling tactics, but they do at least add some (false) frights into a horror movie. Dark Skies lacks all of these for at least the first 3/4 of the movie. This would ordinarily cause me to commend the film. However, their absence actually exposes the critical weakness of the film: nothing’s happening. It’s not suspenseful – nothing’s happening.

We’re all accustomed to horror films ramping up the tension over their run time. This is especially true with the Paranormal Activity franchise; it’s their calling card. You know the scares are going to get bigger and more intense the longer the run time goes on. Hell, I can still see the ending of REC in my mind’s eye (now that was a horror film!)… that was a build-up punctuated with a ton of scares along the way. It seems that Dark Skies saved all of its material for the final quarter of the film. This wouldn’t be bad, if the final quarter wasn’t quite so poor too. You already know how it’s going to end.

Dark Skies (2013)

The trouble is that the film tries to shoehorn in too many ideas from other films. You have the obvious Signs similarities, then the use of surveillance footage (Paranormal Activity), night vision cameras (Paranormal Activity 2) and emotionally disturbed children (Poltergeist). What you’re left with is a product that isn’t equal to the sum of its parts.

All that being said, I admire the film-makers for being bold in attempting something a little different from the normal LOUD NOISES approach to horror movies; making it unfortunate that the plot is a bit too bare and basic. When I saw that it came “from the producer of Insidious, Sinister and Paranormal Activity“, I thought I knew what I was going to get (clue: NOISES), but I was mistaken. Turns out I wasn’t mistaken about the ending though…

Ultimately, I just failed to be scared or even feel absorbed by the plot of Dark Skies. Even the most “startling” of modern horror movies at least have me hooked into the plot to see how it’ll all play out, but this was stripped away by my overwhelming sense of déja-vu. Dark Skies isn’t for those with short-attention spans, but nor is it for those that want a pay-off in their films. If the skies are dark and forboding outside your house, don’t try venturing out to the cinema for Dark Skies. You’d have more fun re-watching The X-Files.

So back to the real question here… just how does David Duchovny do it? How does he still look as youthful as he did in the early 1990’s? Maybe it was the fact that he played a character obsessed with aliens? Perhaps he actually did encounter aliens and they gave him some magical youth formula… that’d make a lot of sense. Or maybe it’s just the well-documented fact that he was a sex addict for much of his life and he’s actually a vampire absorbing their youth as he goes. Now that’s a film idea! The truth IS out there.

Phage Factor:

1.5 Stars

Mama (2013)

Mama (2013)

Horror. The genre has the potential for producing the most memorable films you’ll ever see. The ones you can’t escape, not even in your dreams; they haunt you and pursue you. For me, it was all about Ghostbusters II when I was a little Phage. That film spooked me something wicked. Every night I’d see Vigor, the scourge of Carpathia, warping his way out of a wall and walking downstairs to get me. That was terror. Since then, I’d say I’d been spooked by the finale of The Ring when I was in my mid-teens and by the closing sequence of Rec, which was intense to say the least. But everything else? Meh. Nothing terrifying has come my way. A horror doesn’t have to be terrifying, but if it chooses not to go that route, it best opt to have one hell of a story. Luckily, Mama delivers in this department.

Mama (2013)

Mama comes with the name of Guillermo del Toro flanking it on every piece of press and publicity. However, it’s important to note that he’s merely an executive producer. Nothing wrong with that, but all too often these types of producers have little-to-no impact on what you’re seeing on screen. But all that being said, don’t let this dissuade you off the film. The premise of the film is quite simple: two young girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) are kidnapped by their homicidal father and taken to a cabin in the woods, where he plans to finish his series of executions. However, something’s lurking in that cabin. Something paranormal. And this paranormal entity doesn’t like homicidal fathers. So once he’s taken care of, the spirit chooses to take care of the girls as its own, as their Mama. So when the girls are found living wild like savages, they’re taken back into the real world. But Mama likes to keep an eye on her girls… even when they’re housed with their Uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain).

Mama (2013)

Essentially, Mama struck me as a cross between Paranormal Activity, Poltergeist and something akin to The Ring / Dark Water, all with a very “outworldy”, del Toro-esque layer of makeup. Now, this sentence may have put you off entirely, but that’s just the vibe of the film. What lies within is arguably far better than I’ve made it sound. I use these films as reference points owing to the fact the film focuses on children and their interaction with an ethereal being. It definitely has that sense of innocence about it where children will happily befriend a demon… something they always seem to do in these movies. Funnily enough, I actually befriended Vigor in my dreams eventually. I went for a swim in the pink ooze and all was well. I cured myself of those nightmares forever, but that was thanks to some lucid dreaming techniques that I picked up and less to do with me wanting to be best mates with a ghoul.

So far, so good. But what really held my attention here was the story, and not the scares. Horror movies nowadays are horribly shallow affairs filled with LOUD NOISES and jarring camera angles. This isn’t horror to me. Whilst Mama has some effective scares and some memorable frights, I was just intrigued as to how the film was going to conclude. All too often, you know exactly how a horror will end. Either the killer is demasked and killed, someone will wander away into the distance for the sequel, or the demon lives on. Tick box 1, 2 or 3 right there. Mama is different because I couldn’t predict how it was going to end. And when the climax appeared to be going in the stale “oh, what a cop out” direction, it takes a left turn and catches you off-guard. I like this! Keep me off-guard, please!

Mama (2013)

Typically, the actors in a horror movie rarely merit a discussion. They’re dispensable and are merely bodies for the bashing and slaughtering. Whilst I’m not going to praise the actors here for being a revelation in how to act in a horror movie, it’s all admirably done. Jessica Chastain sports a rocking new punky look, which suits the tone of the movie, and sells you her despair and pain. Similarly, the young actresses playing Victoria and Lilly do their best “creepy child” routines. But yet again… they’re no Pierce Gagnon.  Speaking of which, why is his only upcoming movie Rio 2? Put him in more live action movies!

Ultimately, Mama delivers where so many recent horror movies have failed; it gives you a compelling plot. Whilst I didn’t fall asleep terrified by the underside of my bed or the agape cupboard in the corner, the film did its job. The visual scares are here and the film doesn’t rely on cheap, loud noise scare tactics to get you to jump. This automatically makes me like it a lot more. And if you’ve glanced down and seen the score we’ve given it and are wondering how we can classify it as that…. well, we’ve been constantly disappointed by horrors over the past year or so and this was a refreshing change of pace. No, it doesn’t reinvent the genre or flaunt any conventions, but it delivers a hugely enjoyable ride thanks in no small part to an intriguing plot.

So will Mama give youngsters nightmares, like Ghostbusters II gave me nightmares? Well, I think it could do! Sure, this chick isn’t Vigor, the scourge of Carpathia – she can’t walk out of paintings (Vigor beat Samara to that coming out of an image trick), she doesn’t turn New York into a city of pink slime, and nor can she make a toaster dance with the aforementioned slime – but she does look quite horrendous. So that’ll do the job. Therefore, if you too want to give your kid recurring nightmares in order to teach them how to lucid dream (a neat trick to pick up), then invite Mama into your home… she’ll take care of it for you.

Phage Factor:

4 Star

ParaNorman (2012)

It’s not unusual for a children’s movie to pander to adults as well as their target demographic nowadays. Gone are the times of cartoons that were simplistic and one dimensional. Now you can expect sub-plots, innuendo and pop culture references galore that are designed to amuse adults whilst the children laugh at an animal slipping on a banana skin, or whatever trite is passing as comedy in the newest Madagascar movie… probably something involving Chris Tucker talking gibberish. This brings us nicely to ParaNorman – a movie which on face value is for children: it’s animated, doesn’t contain bad language and stars a child protagonist. But after watching it I’m not entirely sure ParaNorman knows exactly who it’s for, or what it wants to be…

Just your typical American family. Two parents, two kids… and a spectral grandma.

The eponymous Norman is a bit of an outcast: he’s bullied at school, harassed by his father and sees dead people. Wait, what? Yes, Norman takes a page out of The Sixth Sense‘s play book insofar that he can see the deceased as ghosts. Not only this, but he can talk to them and yes, you guessed it – no-one else can. The premise of the film, once we get over the alienation pretense, is that Norman is tasked with preventing a witch’s curse from resurrecting the dead in zombie form. And I won’t be ruining anything by saying that the lack of belief by the townsfolk results in the dead rising and creating merry mayhem.

Now from first glance this should automatically be flagging up some issues for a “children’s” movie where there are ghosts and the undead at play. But the film gets incredibly emotional and poignant towards its climax too. Not in the Up way, but it still resonated strongly with me. It also brought up some rather mature “adult” issues in the closing five minutes too that provoked several youths to exclaim “WHAT?!” (when you see the film, you’ll pinpoint this moment fairly accurately).

All this being said… is the movie any good? After all, that’s why you’ve come to Film Phage isn’t it? Well it is a good movie (a very good one)… but it’s not a great one. Although the film runs in at just over 90 minutes, I felt that the first act took an absolute age to develop. Yes, we understand that Norman is an outcast that leads a sombre life, but it was very plodding. I’ll admit that this added a lot of emotional weight and poignancy to the film’s pay off at the end, but it still seemed laboured. The film never gripped me in a way that so many others (both animated and not) have this past month. And I bloody love zombies.

However, what the film does do right, it does in spades. Firstly: those visuals. The film employs an absolutely beautiful use of stop-motion to create a world that’s alive and bustling. This isn’t Wallace & Gromit “clunky” stop-motion – this is a seamless use of the technique. Every set and character looks lovingly crafted and created and there’s no doubt that a lot of effort has been spent making the world so rich. And if you’re recognising that “look”, then it’s because it’s come from the makers of Coraline – another movie that was marketed as a “children’s” movie, but dealt with much more mature issues. Less button eyes in this one though, and much more limb severance.

Painstaking work that contributed to a truly beautiful film.

In terms of voice work, it’s all perfectly suited to the film, though I’m loathe to comment on someone’s “acting” abilities when they’re contributing voices. If you’re looking for “big name” talent, then there aren’t any true A-list tent pole names to draw you in. There’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Casey Affleck and John Goodman, but there’s no single huge star, and for me that’s no bad thing at all. It allows the film-makers to focus on the entire cast as opposed to featuring one character heavily just to justify paying the A-lister’s fee.

“So the film looks good, it sounds good, but it’s got a stilted first act? Is that it? Is that why you’re not raving about it?” Well yes and no. I just failed to really latch on to the movie as a whole. The story is entertaining, but isn’t what I was expecting entirely. It was all a little too downbeat for me with too few smiling moments and even less belly laughs (though there were some to be had). Ok, I never expect a zombie story to be a laughter riot, but this film is clearly aimed at the younger demographic – and they weren’t laughing either despite me being in a packed screening.

So there’s your word of warning: it’s an oddball movie that I’m struggling to classify. It was a good, enjoyable film, but its sombre tone also dampened my happiness. I can’t yet say if it’s the best of the glut of “children’s Halloween movies” hitting cinemas right now, but I certainly doubt it’ll be the worst. It’s poignant, beautiful and bewitching, but just lacked that spark to really captivate me.

ParaNorman is that social pariah of a movie: too mature to be an all-out kid’s flick, yet it deals with issues relevant to youngsters. Except the “seeing ghosts” bit… that probably only affects like 1 in 10,000 children. And that’s probably just a sign of too much sugar in their diet. That or they genuinely do see ghosts. No doubt they’ll get their own “based on a true story” film in about 15 years time after they’re possessed with the ghost of Walt Disney…

Phage Factor:

3.5 Star