90s horror

All posts tagged 90s horror

DAY 28 OF 31: THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)

Published October 28, 2019 by Philip Ivory

It’s hard to believe 20 years have gone by since the release of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999). A pioneer in the “found footage” school of horror, this meagerly budgeted independent film directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez was a huge hit.

Mike is one of three filmmakers who go deep into the Maryland woods to pursue the Blair Witch legend.

Its success was helped by an innovative online marketing campaign, which generated interest in part by suggesting that the film was an actual documentary, and that the three young filmmakers who worked on it had actually gone missing and were the subjects of police investigation.

Of course, none of that was true. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was a total work of fiction, and the filmmakers were played by actors. But the real/unreal confusion created an aura of dread and uncertainty that stirred interest and greatly benefited the film.

In shaky, hand-held footage that was actually shot by the three actors who play the young filmmakers (Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard, whose characters bear the same names), we see the trio set out to investigate a local occult legend — the Blair Witch — which is tied to mysterious deaths at different times in the region’s history.

They interview a few locals about the legends, before venturing out into the woods with their video equipment. And that’s when the story really starts.

 

The woods can be scary, especially when someone leaves weird cult-like stick figures for you to find.

The film plays effectively on the primal fear of being lost in the wilderness.

For that is what quickly happens to the trio. They camp at night only to hear strange sounds in the dark. They march in circles during the day, unable to find their way back to the road and their car.

They bicker. The map disappears, causing a breakdown in morale, which gets even worse when Mike admits that, in a moment of irrationality, he kicked it into the stream.

Josh, showing sings of weariness, will mysteriously disappear.

They discover strange, cult-like stick figures and symbols left in the trees. A warning? Evidently, the three are not alone.

When Josh disappears and the remaining two seem to hear his distant screams at night, it’s clear things have gone from bad to worse.

Soon they are finding bits of human teeth and other grisly tidbits that may or may not belong to Josh.

Heather records an emotional farewell message, apologizing to Mike and Josh for for apparently leading them to their doom.

Mike and Heather are reduced to a child-like state of pure terror, huddling together in the dark.

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is not strong on plot, or on character. If fact, the characters can become grating as they harp at each other, casting blame for their increasingly desperate situation.

Mike and Heather end up in a deserted house for the chaotic and frightening final sequence.

Still, the film benefits from the “this is really happening” vibe and the sincere performances of the actors, who apparently were genuinely frightened at points during the shooting.

Other films like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and COVERFIELD found new ways to capitalize on the found footage technique.

But THE BLAIR WITH PROJECT got there before them, and almost made going back into the woods as scary as JAWS had made going back into the water.

 

 

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DAY 27 OF 31: THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)

Published October 27, 2019 by Philip Ivory

“I see dead people,” confides Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a troubled, sensitive boy who has been greatly burdened by this terrible psychic gift. So traumatized is he by the terrifying apparitions that appear before him, ghosts who do not know they’re dead, that his mother (Toni Collette) has become alarmed and thinks he needs help.

Cole can’t tell this disturbing secret to his mother. Instead he shares it with Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), a psychologist who wishes to help the boy, but who at first does not believe him.

Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis.

Nonetheless, Malcolm is determined to help Cole, partly to make up for a terrible failure Malcolm had with an earlier patient. That patient, a troubled adult who had been treated by Malcolm as a child, broke into Malcolm’s house one night and shot him in front of his wife, Anna (Olivia Williams), before turning the gun on himself. 

This is the set-up of THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), a masterful supernatural drama with compelling characters, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

Cole sees dead people.

THE SIXTH SENSE has become famous for its unexpected ending, which I won’t spoil here, and which makes us look back at everything that came before in a different light. Shyamalan has often tried to incorporate such endings into his subsequent films, with varying degrees of success. THE SIXTH SENSE remains his triumph.

The early scenes in which we get to glimpse the dead people who inflict themselves on Cole are eerie and frightening.

Do the ghosts who appear to Cole just want to frighten him, or is there something else they need?

But the heart of the film is the solid and touching relationship between Malcolm and Cole. Before he can help Cole, Malcolm has to overcome his own skepticism, and believe in the boy’s claim that he can see the dead, and it’s to the psychologist’s credit that he does so.

After that, Malcolm goes a step further, and finds a way to help Cole deal with this ability. He advises Cole that, instead of running in terror from the dead, Cole must find out what they are seeking, and help them if possible.

By the end, Cole will help Malcolm too, helping him find ways to reach out to his beloved Anna, who has become increasingly distant since the night the patient broke into their house.

Olivia Williams as Anna, with Bruce Willis as Malcolm.

Osment and Willis are both superb in their roles, providing performance of considerable emotional power. They are given crucial support by Collette and Williams.

That’s hardly all there is to THE SIXTH SENSE. Shyamalan proves himself to be a sure touch with lighting and creative camera setups, knowing how to instill tension and dread throughout. The film’s setting, Philadelphia, is like a character itself, looking stately, imbued with the sadness of history, and starkly ominous throughout.

And then there’s the ending, which if you’re lucky enough to be completely fooled by it (as I was), delivers a wonderful revelatory wallop.

Despite all the dread and gloom, good things develop by the end, including sure signs of healing in the film’s two broken relationships, that between Cole and his mom, and between Malcolm and Anna.

Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette.

THE SIXTH SENSE is a ghost story that has brains and heart, in addition to providing a generous helping of skillfully rendered scare scenes.

QUOTES:

MALCOLM: Once upon a time there was this person named Malcolm. He worked with children. He loved it. He loved it more than anything else. And then one night, he found out that he made a mistake with one of them. He couldn’t help that one. And he can’t stop thinking about it, he can’t forget. Ever since then, things have been different. He’s not the same person that he used to be. And his wife doesn’t like the person that he’s become. They barely speak anymore, they’re like strangers. And then one day Malcolm meets this wonderful little boy, a really cool little boy. Reminds him a lot of the other one. And Malcolm decides to try and help this new boy. ‘Cause he feels that if he can help this new boy, it would be like helping that other one, too.

COLE: How does the story end?

MALCOLM: I don’t know.

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DAY 26 OF 31: JACOB’S LADDER (1990)

Published October 26, 2019 by Philip Ivory

Directed by Adrian Lyne, JACOB’S LADDER (1990) is a metaphysical horror film about a man, Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), whose existence seems to be fractured between several time frames, and perhaps different realities.

We know Jacob served in Vietnam, and we get fragmentary glimpses of he and his platoon members involved in a horrifically violent incident, but we’re not really clear who the attackers are, and who survived and who didn’t.

What is happening to Jacob Singer?

We know also that he’s a postal worker living in Brooklyn in the 70s with a woman named Jezebel (Elizabeth Peña), and this seems most likely to be the “present” of the narrative.

And yet we see this version of Jacob being tormented by images of a past marriage and the dead son he still yearns for. Amid the shifting layers of narrative, feelings of deep sadness and loss anchor the story.

Elizabeth Peña is the woman who loves Jacob. Or is she?

Normal seeming-sequences give way to startling, surrealistic imagery:

  • Jacob finds himself caught in a subway station with seemingly no exit.
  • At a party, he glimpses Jezebel seemingly being ravaged by a monstrous apparition.
  • Later, figures with demonic faces torture him in a nightmarish hospital.

Demonic figures torment Jacob.

Danny Aiello appear as a mysteriously sympathetic chiropractor who seems to be treating something deeper than Jacob’s spinal health.

Danny Aiello is an otherworldly chiropractor.

The thing is, it’s hard to write too much about JACOB’S LADDER without giving the game away. To appreciate it, you’ll need a high tolerance for hallucinogenic imagery and a certain amount of patience with metaphysical mysteries that are not tied up in a neat bow.

An example of the film’s nightmarish imagery.

JACOB’S LADDER is directed with tremendous sophistication and style by Lyne. It’s full of scenes that are both shocking and beautiful. And Robbins gives an appealing performance as an every man whose reality is spectacularly coming apart at the seams.

In JACOB’S LADDER’s otherworldly visions, both angelic and demonic, discerning horror fans will find much to ponder and appreciate.

INTERESTING FACTS:

  • JACOB’S LADDER is partly inspired by the film of OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE, which is based on a famous story by Ambrose Bierce.
  • Roger Ebert wrote that JACOB’S LADDER “evokes a paranoid-schizophrenic state as effectively as any film I have ever seen.”
  • A remake, not seen by this writer, was released in 2019 starring Michael Ealy.

 

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“I see dead people.”