(US - 2012)
LOVELY MOLLY, this frightening ghost story does the trendy slow-burn thing just right and rewards the viewer with several legitimately well-done jolts throughout. Motorcycle-riding loner Annie (a strong performance by Caity Lotz) wants nothing to do with her dysfunctional family, but is drawn back to her childhood home--the location of unspecified abuse--after her mother dies and her ex-junkie sister Nicole (Agnes Bruckner) mysteriously vanishes before the funeral. Once back at the house, it doesn't take long for a ghostly presence to make itself apparent to Annie and her visiting cousin Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins), who was taking care of Nicole's daughter Eva (Dakota Bright). A figure appears and drags Liz into a closet that leads nowhere and Annie flees with Eva. Annie finds a skeptical ally in local deputy Bill (a weathered-looking Casper Van Dien), who doesn't really buy her story but agrees to help her out of curiosity and fatherly concern because the troubled young woman reminds him of his estranged daughter ("She's a fucking bitch, too," he jokes). Annie also touches base with Stevie (Haley Hudson), the weird girl from back in high school who claimed to be able to see ghosts...and it turns out she can. One seems to be communicating with Annie via electronic devices--cell phone, laptop, etc...but this is one that's best approached knowing as little as possible.
Writer/director Nicholas McCarthy expanded his 11-minute short from 2011 (and replaced the lead actress) and has fashioned a genuinely scary horror sleeper that's refreshingly old-fashioned with its lack of shaky-cam, found-footage cliches and cardboard-cutout characters. Annie is one of the strongest horror heroines in a long time, and it's a star-making turn by Lotz, who plays Annie as someone who constantly shields herself from everything and has learned to live on her own and to not rely on or trust anyone. And Lotz plays her very unglamorously and very "average." No makeup and she looks a bit rough. The script is very character-driven and it just makes the situation that much more unsettlingly terrifying. People who liked THE INNKEEPERS should check out THE PACT for a ghost story where something actually happens. (R, 89 mins, also out this week on DVD/Blu-ray)
(Philippines - 2011; 2012 US release)
Not to be confused with John Hillcoat's 2009 film of Cormac McCarthy's novel, this ROAD is the latest from writer/director Yam Laranas, who's sort-of the leading figure in present-day Filipino horror cinema (he's already tried to make the jump to the US with 2009's little-seen THE ECHO, a remake of his 2004 Filipino film SIGAW). THE ROAD shows Laranas (who also functions as his own cinematographer) has a gift for shot composition and striking visuals, but man, what a stale script! This feels like an excessively tardy Filipino take on the JU-ON/J-Horror explosion from at least a decade ago. And the longer it goes on, the more you think "OK, they're setting it up for this twist ending, but it would be way too obvious if it played out that way, so they must be trying to cleverly mislead us. There's no way that can be the big reveal." But yes. That is the big reveal. The twist ending you dismissed at the halfway point for being too incredibly obvious? That's the twist ending.
Laranas starts with a suicide in a parked car and a young, ambitious cop (TJ Trinidad) being made aware of a decade-old disappearance of two teenage girls. Then the story unfolds in three sections: in 2008, three teens go for a joyride on a gated-off, long-closed, and seemingly endless road in the middle of the night. With no intersections or exits, they keep going in circles, passing the same tree and being passed by a driverless car. Then ghosts start appearing on the road. In 1998, Laranas tells the story of the two missing girls, driving down the same road, running out of gas, and meeting a strange teenage boy who takes them back to his house and they're never seen again. In 1988, a little boy lives in that same house with his abusive mother (Carmina Villaroel) and his spineless minister father (Marvin Agustin). The mother doesn't let the boy go outside and keeps him locked in a cabinet during her dalliances with a much-younger lover. How these three stories tie into one another is calculated about 1/3 of the way in, and ridiculously obvious by the halfway mark. There's almost an "everything but the kitchen sink" mentality to the plot elements, with ghosts and the supernatural, murder, child abuse, and even possession, which Laranas clumsily shoehorns in just for the "reveal" that we already see coming. Laranas does a terrific job at establishing an eerie, dread-filled vibe, especially in the 2008 section, and the climax features some of the most beautiful cinematic rainfall this side of BLADE RUNNER, but once you see where the story's going, its holes, logic lapses, and plot conveniences are just too much to take seriously. Laranas is an obviously gifted stylist and makes this low-budget film look frequently stunning--he just needs to let someone else do the scripting. (R, 110 mins)