Tag: horror movies (Page 2 of 3)

Exam / The Killing Room

Two Horror Movies with a Surprise Twist

Testing . . . Testing . . .

Sometimes watching lots of movies can have its down sides, especially if you watch lots of “psychological thrillers”. That’s kind of a buzzword; any movie with a hint of a twist calls itself that, and very few actually live up to their potential. Some movies certainly do, but there are scads more that fall short, or fall apart, or their so-called surprise endings are easily deduced because they aren’t original. After you’ve watched enough of them, you can usually pick out what the twist will be.

Two psychological thriller films I watched recently take on the same premise: a group of people who have volunteered for a test that they know nothing about, and the breakdown of the group as tensions rise.

[one_third][/one_third] In Exam¸ eight final candidates for a high-powered, high status job are passing the final stage of their rigorous interview process. Set in present time but a slightly alternate universe, they are given enigmatic instructions and these self-described “A-type personalities” must try and discover what the test actually is and if they’re supposed to work together or with a more cutthroat mindset.

As valid psychological experiments have shown, as stress increases, different traits start coming out. One candidate is domineering and antagonistic, others strive for group efforts, and still another seemingly shuts down under the pressure. Candidates are eliminated by guile and deceit. Their imposed time limit winds down, making the remaining people paranoid and resorting to last ditch efforts, including physical torture and murder. In the end, only one candidate remains, and it’s not quite what you might have thought it may be. The actual test itself is a bit of a surprise too, needing neither cooperation nor the competitive edge.

For a thriller, Exam has the rare, pretty positive ending. I know that sounds like a stretch, what with the paranoid torture and all, but trust me: The implications made at the end are solid and optimistic. Overall the movie was good, although the reveal doesn’t turn everyone on their ear.

[one_third][/one_third]The other movie, The Killing Room, was set up in a similar way, although the four strangers believe they’re volunteering for a medical study. Then, when things start going awry (one participant is brutally shot after innocuous chatter by the man running the program), they find themselves locked in a room and told only one will survive.

Once again, anxiety and fear rule. Unlike the other film, The Killing Room also shows some of the behind the scenes action of the group conducting the experiment. The director is interviewing a woman to work in his program, and uses her background in psychiatry to reason through the participants’ reactions, as well as gauge her suitability for his insidious agenda.

In this one, I thought I had it completely figured out. I thought it was plain the real subject of the experiment was the woman being interviewed, and I thought the film wasn’t quite as clever as it was trying to be.

Imagine my delight when yes, although that is the case, it is only superficially true, and an actual twist involving the lone survivor was the surprise, ambiguous ending! I love it when a film can sneak up and blindside me, and this one had me hoodwinked right before the end credits began to roll.

In the psychological film genre, both films did an admirable job with their similar subject matter, and both are enjoyable enough to view more than once.

Exam, directed by Stuart Hazeldine; written by Stuart Hazeldine and Simon Garrity. Released in 2010; available through Netflix streaming. Watch the trailer for Exam.

The Killing Room, directed by Jonathan Liebesman; written by Gus Krieger and Ann Peacock. Released in 2009; available through Netflix streaming. Watch the trailer for The Killing Room.

The Shrine / IFC Films

‘The Shrine’ Movie Review

Released in 2010, The Shrine is a Canadian horror film that packs a punch.

It seems like a straight-forward, standard flick with lots of clichéd tropes: people go missing, mysterious, unfriendly villagers, a feisty woman journalist desperate to get the scoop. Under all the seemingly tired façade, however, is just a little bit more. It’s a little bit skewed, a little bit unexpected, and more clever than just what’s on the surface.

Again, it seems simple enough. It starts off with a usual horror film scene: a man tied to a table with robed figures surrounding him. Despite his protests, and despite the audience having no reference to what in the world may be happening, he is sacrificed. Cut to the more familiar USA, where a journalist finds news stories about people going missing in Eastern Europe over many years. She wants to track down why; her boss tells her no. She and her assistant decide to go anyway, managing to dupe her boyfriend into tagging along.

As is the case in so many horror films, right off the bat you know these people are making a mistake. They head off into strange places, chasing phantoms, full of themselves and their purpose. The village the journalist has discovered is the source of the disappearances is small and isolated, and populated with folk who revere their religious leaders but are not in the least welcoming to outsiders. An odd fog—mentioned by one of the missing in his notebook—draws the American’s attention, and again, in spite of warnings and obvious signals to not go there, the women plunge headlong into the unknown.

The fog is dense and quiet, and separately the women stumble upon a demonic statue holding a stone heart. Both women, turned-around and confused, realize the statue is watching them—no, really, by turning its head as they move around it—and that stone heart is beating. They scramble out of the fogbank as quickly as they can.

From there, things get worse. The trio is lead to a crypt where they discover the missing people, all sacrificed with metal masks affixed to their faces. They’re locked in, even as the townspeople start to converge. They try to escape while being chased; one woman doesn’t make it, sacrificed like the others. The journalist and her boyfriend continue to try and escape, but the woman is not just pursued by villagers but her own mind as well: visions of demons in place of the people haunt her, otherworldly voices and suggestions filling her ears.

Eventually her boyfriend comes to realize, just as the viewers do, that his girlfriend has become cursed, and the angry villagers hunting them are actually trying to prevent her escape into the rest of the world. With this knowledge, her boyfriend helps them sacrifice her; holding the metal mask steady while it is ceremoniously pinned in place, killing her but stopping the entity possessing her.

What makes this more chilling than the typical horror film is twofold.

First, the trio of protagonists are in Eastern Europe (a fictional Polish village) so even though there is English spoken, the villagers speak to each other in a foreign tongue. None of their conversations are translated. As I don’t speak Polish, I can’t even tell you if that was what they were speaking, and neither could the main characters. Being surrounded by people but not being able to understand or communicate is a surprising, uneasy fear, but a completely valid one. Its roots are in xenophobia, but it’s more than that. It’s just part of the innate human psyche to need to be part of a familiar group, and taken out of that bubble of security can be terrifying. Although I don’t know if the filmmakers intended this, it works effectively to alienate the audience as well to creepy effect.

Secondly—and I know fans out there who don’t like this—the ending was ambiguous. Not elbowing-you-in-the-ribs ambiguous, like its telling you, “Of course there’ll be a sequel!”, but ambiguous in that nothing is really explained. There’s a fogbank with an evil statue in it, people who see the statue are possessed, and the villagers have a duty to put them down. The simple village folk aren’t being unfriendly for no reason; they do what they need to do. There is evil in the world, and it doesn’t have logic behind it.

That’s pretty scary stuff. Usually American audiences expect a backstory or rationale, even in horror films. To have the end of a film simply be “that’s just the way it is” is unnerving and almost foreign. It’s hard to wrap your head around.

The Shrine was a simple film (and I did figure out the twist that the villagers were the good guys all along before the reveal), but it was surprisingly effective and its chills lingered.

Locker 13

‘Locker 13’ Review

Locker 13 is an anthology-style thriller emphasizing choice and the impact even a seemingly simple decision can have on a life.

The frame story—an ex-con named Skip at his after-hours janitorial job—hints at things to come. His supervisor, an omniscient narrator, stresses the importance of knowing one’s self, of understanding that life is full of options and making the right one is paramount. His vague but sweeping comments and haughty attitude are grating, and the audience can easily sympathize with Skip; who hasn’t had to suffer through a long-winded monologue from someone who only wants to hear the sound of their own voice?

The side stories, foreshadowed by various props (boxing gloves, a fez, a tape recorder) and the mysterious locker 13, are neat little packages echoing the theme.

Although some may think anthologies are a gimmick or passé, the nice thing about them is they usually allow for different story-telling styles to be showcased. This is the case with Locker 13; different writers and directors bring different perspectives to the table. Some of them have hint at a supernatural element; some are just people being people.

See also: 5 Short Horror Films that Really Freak You Out

In Story #1, an aging boxer gets a chance for the fame he has chased, but at a cost he finds he’s not willing to pay. In another, three women held hostage must decide whether to lie for the chance of freedom at the hands of a killer. A man contemplating suicide is forced to defend his decision in Story #3. An inductee to a fraternal lodge witnesses things he wasn’t prepared for, but in the end, it really wasn’t the story of any of his choices after all. All of them deal with consequences. All of them (some more overt than others) leave just a little bit of tantalizing, “What happens next?” for the viewer to ponder over after it’s all said and done.

Most people would count four stories in this film. I saw six. The four obvious ones, of course—different styles, different characters, different morals—but the two men in the frame story have their own as well: Skip, the man who needs a second chance, and Archie, in the role of the wise elder trying to impart knowledge on his ward.

The main character, Skip, who has been told repeatedly to be conscious of the choices he makes and has been warned against opening locker 13, follows a path that he believes will bring him good fortune and easy times. The American dream! He finds that locker 13 holds another version of himself, a version that lives a day before his present. He’s too caught up in the surprise and potential of it to realize that the man in the past is still him—with all the faults and weaknesses and cunning to exploit even himself. Which of course he does, leading to an end that, while not completely unexpected, still manages to leave the viewer with a smug satisfaction. We would never fall for the trap, would we? Of course not; we’re smarter than that. More savvy by far—

—until there is another scene following Skip’s ending. A scene with good old Archie, who has been the guide, our guide throughout this film. We see that his choices, his finale, is what we’d hope ours would be, if we had the foresight to understand that from the beginning. It’s easy to look back and think, “Of course!” but much more difficult to have that sort of insight all along.

Everything has a story. Our choices define everything. Pretty deep from a thriller anthology, and wise words to remember.

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