Altar (2017) Review

rsz_altarALTAR (2017)

Starring Stefanie Estes, Brittany Falardeau, Deep Rai and Jessica Strand

Written and Directed by Matthew Sconce

ALTAR is the terrifying story of a group of former college classmates who get lost driving to a college reunion camp out in the Sierra Nevada mountains. After stopping for the night, they stumble onto something much darker. They must battle to escape the evil they unleashed to not only save their own lives but their souls as well.”

I’ve watched so many found footage horror movies at this point that I kind of want to know what attracts filmmakers to the format. It’s not like they have a particularly good reputation now with critics and audiences, and the big hitters like Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity feel like an age ago now. I’m honestly curious, because the amount of found footage movies in recent years that have found a real genuine reason to be made in such a way is very small. Most of the time it just seems to be an excuse by a filmmaker to get away with dodgy camerawork and sound. As if it excuses a lack of skill or talent. Which it absolutely doesn’t. Because if the story isn’t still told right in the edit, and if the performances aren’t even more believable than in a traditionally shot movie, then the audiences attention has already jumped ship. Truth is, it takes real skill and passion and filmmaking prowess to make a good found footage movie.

Which brings me to Altar. Which, to my surprise, was actually a very cool found footage horror!

rsz_altar1All those complaints in my little rant? Well, it seems Matthew Sconce has the same, and sought to avoid them all here. The camerawork is coherent while still convincingly “found”, the sound is effective and the acting is mostly very engaging. And you know what, it’s actually pretty scary occasionally. We can’t forget that!

As you can probably tell from the plot description, the storyline for Altar doesn’t offer anything in the way of originality but the ace up its sleeve is the characters and actors. The lead siblings Maisy (Estes) and Bo (Parr) are incredibly engaging. Complete opposites, with Maisy outgoing and spirited and Bo introverted and suffering from crippling anxiety and shyness, they nonetheless have an incredible bond that is not something you see many genre films even attempt to develop. Not only that, but Bo’s characterisation is what justifies the found footage format, with the camera being a kind of protective barrier for the aspiring filmmaker. The rest of the cast do well too, each character transcending stereotypes and it’s a pleasure to see.

rsz_altar3Once the horror does kick off (and it admittedly does take a while) the film is in a race to get to the finish line which I really did not mind. It felt very well-structured as the films emphasis is much more on characterisation. There’s a few great jump scares and some fantastic tension, but in terms of violence, due to the ambiguous nature of the threat it’s all a bit PG 13. Also, the production values in one pivotal scene kind of give away the budget, with a plastic-looking set that really draws attention to itself when it should be creating fear.

But all this can be forgiven. Altar is a slow build chiller that gets away with it because those slow moments are filled with characters you’re interested in spending time with.

7/10

Bethany (2017) Review

Bethany PosterBethany (2017)

Director: James Cullen Bressack

Starring: Stefanie Estes, Zak Ward, Shannon Doherty, Tom Green

“You’re not just some stinky zombie, honey.”

After Claire’s (Estes) mother dies, she and her husband Aaron (Ward) move into her childhood home. The couple is struggling both from financial issues, which makes the free rent attractive, and personal setbacks, their son was stillborn and Claire is recovering from a suicide attempt. As Aaron’s job future brightens, Claire seems to descend into a personal hell as old memories of her abusive mother surface amidst strange visions and supernatural phenomena.

Bethany is a solid thriller and twisty ghost story whose disparate threads come together at the very end, possibly too neatly. As well crafted as the film is, it handles some things much better than others. First, some of the good. The film is nicely shot, and while the budget wasn’t listed on IMDB it’s a safe bet that it wasn’t a lot. The cool twilight blue lighting and camera angles make the most of the limited setting. Most of the film takes place in Claire’s mother’s house. To that end the set/location was very important and Bethany makes the most of its real-estate. Much of the plot questions Claire’s sanity as memories of her abusive past intrude into her daily life and weird visions haunt her waking hours.

Bethany 1Claire’s mother Susan (Doherty), was a shallow, looks obsessed pageant mom, bent on turning Claire into the perfect little princess. To escape, Claire turned to her imaginary friend, Bethany, who may not have been as imaginary as Claire thought. There is a literal ghost, and a lot of misdirection. Which is fine, for awhile, not 90% of the film. It is not until the VERY end of the movie that Claire’s visions, past, and the haunting all come together with a series of deus ex machina coincidences that provide all the answers to the viewer. And while the last ten minutes or so are certainly the most enjoyable, as Aaron at last encounters the supernatural, freaks out, and then Claire solves the mystery of her past, it is very predictable. Except for one spectacular moment of wrap-up that is probably the best scene in the entire film and I cannot spoil for you.

The acting is very good. Though at times Estes falls into over-acting. Still, in a horror movie, better more than less. Zak Ward does a good job as the mostly supportive and loving Aaron. In the few marital fights that appear on screen, he is a real jerk and the attitude seems more a contrivance of the script, and doesn’t feel true to the character as established. Tom Green is surprisingly restrained as the couple’s web therapist who pays an ill fated visit to Claire and Aaron. Shannon Doherty practically has “wicked” stamped on her forehead and even when she phones it in, does a creditable job as Claire’s overbearing mother.

rsz_bethany_3After a bit of poking around on IMDB I found out that director Bressack has been called “horror’s new hope”  (StudioCity Patch – Mike Szymanski), among other accolades. He is young, and prolific, that’s for sure. But to live up to such a lofty critique I would expect far more from his work. Bethany is an okay movie , it’s entertaining but nothing that hasn’t been seen and done before in any number of films. It’s a good B-movie but nothing more.

Kudos for: Having a basement.

Lesson learned: Lime Jell-O will help you out of handcuffs.

6/10