Adventures in Streaming: Aaviri

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *

* now with spoilers *

This review does indeed have significant spoilers.

Aaviri is an Indian horror-thriller, wherein a family’s older daughter dies of an asthma attack after being left alone in the swimming pool. After this tragedy, her parents decide to leave the house because there are too many sad memories; they move with their younger daughter into a new house, where the little girl has supernatural experiences and seems to be talking to a ghost or imaginary friend.

In the end, this ghost/imaginary friend ends up being the spirit of the older daughter, who’s trying to protect her family from a vengeful ghost. Her efforts are not particularly helpful, as the mother is possessed by the angry spirit and nearly kills the younger daughter. In the end, though, the little girl is rescued, the mother de-possessed, and the guilty party caught and punished for his crimes.

The atmosphere in Aaviri is good – suitably creepy, not hidden in deep, unnecessary shadows. The characters are presented fairly realistically, although the mother is a little histrionic and the father is randomly detached and then jovial. The scary effects are largely practical, and since they typically happen in daylight or brightly lit rooms, they seem more unexpected and effective. We’re not sure at first if the little girl’s imaginary friend is good or bad or even real, and this ambiguity goes all the way to the final act of the film, when we’re introduced to the vengeful spirit that’s actually behind the negative supernatural experiences.

We get to see pretty early on that the father is cheating on his wife and is basically sexually harassing women at work, but since we witnessed the older daughter’s death, we don’t associate the father with any kind of murderous tendencies. We don’t particularly like him as far as a husband, but he seems to be a loving dad. This helps set up the reveal at the end … but ultimately we weren’t disposed to like him anyway, so we aren’t surprised or disappointed when we find out what he had done to anger the vengeful spirit. We also don’t get any back story on him or on the family, though, so we have zero clues to what the vengeful spirit might be upset about or even to the existence of said spirit at all. We’re asked to think that the angry ghost is the older daughter, but … why? Nothing in any interaction suggested a negative home life for the girls or any tension between the parents. It’s just a red herring that’s not even plausible enough to really fool the audience.

Not being from India myself, usually when I watch something that doesn’t explain the mythology or the interactions with the supernatural, I just assume that in the film’s country of origin, these things are a given that the general local audience would understand. But even with that assumption, I felt that the segue into the vengeful spirit and the possession and the escalation of paranormal occurrences was super abrupt, with no lead-in or connection to existing events – we’re just supposed to know that this was going to happen, even though the creepy atmosphere the whole rest of the film was subtle and slow-paced. Basically, we’re settling into a slow-burn, tiny-clues sort of film and then – BAM! – we’re drenched with a bucket of cold water. Maybe he wanted us to feel like we were suddenly possessed? We also don’t get much of a timeline for the abduction of the little girl, so our fear for her is pretty much nonexistent, but then suddenly she’s at death’s door and we’re supposed to feel the nervous tension of an undetonated-bomb action movie.

The father’s crimes aren’t that connected to his philandering and creeping on his coworkers. Maybe the director didn’t think being an unfaithful creep was “bad”, and that we would be stunned by the revelation that the father did the thing (dun-dun-duuunnn)?

The mother, who’s been on edge the whole film, somehow recovers from being possessed as though it happens every Tuesday; the vengeful ghost isn’t acknowledged for what she went through as much as I would have hoped, since the whole movie is about how she was wronged. The older daughter seems to have died for no reason, and the ghost’s targeting the father’s family instead of just him directly didn’t mesh with what we knew of her.

Overall, it was not super bad … but it was not super good. The atmosphere was compelling, but to be honest, it was the only reason I kept watching after the half-way mark, because the plot moves pretty slowly. The kids do a good job acting, but the adults aren’t as consistent at it, and that imbalance makes the flaws more obvious. The director is also the man who plays the father, and I’m thinking he should not direct himself. The practical effects made for a creepier experience, but the possessed effects sort of … didn’t. It’s not a waste of your time, but it’s also not the end of the world if you don’t get around to it.

popcorn icon  4 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming: Await Further Instructions

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *

* now with spoilers *

Await Further Instructions, set in England, is about Nick, a young man who brings his Indian-British girlfriend Annji home at Christmas to meet his family. Clearly he has been distant from them for a while; his mother is overjoyed to see him, because he hasn’t been home in so long. His father seems cold but not unfriendly. His grandfather is blatantly racist and a bit senile. His very pregnant sister and her boyfriend are happy enough to see Nick and Annji, but things are tense, especially after Grandpa makes offensive comments about Annji’s race and other topics.

Annji is suffering from allergies or perhaps a head-cold, a fact that suddenly matters when a mysterious black wall is erected around the house and the television tells them to stay indoors and await further instructions. There seems to be no way to break down the black wall (although some of them try), and when the television tells them that one of them is “infected” and should be isolated, they immediately turn on sniffling Annji, forcing her to lock herself in a bedroom.

Tensions continue to build while Nick’s father supports the wisdom of what he assumes is the government speaking to them through the television messages; he compares his cooperation with the shelter-in-place directives of World War II that were so important for survival.

The situation deteriorates until all members of the family are fighting with one another, some of them have died, and Nick becomes desperate to escape with Annji.

Visually, Await Further Instructions is quite engaging, deftly capturing the surreal feeling of being told via typical emergency channels (like the TV) that “something” has happened but not being told what it is. The black barrier is inexplicable, but Nick’s father suggests that the government has technology – a reasonable supposition, I guess. The acting is solid, to the point that you kind of experience the awkwardness of family members saying embarrassing things and the stomach-churning difficulty of spending time with the parent you like while avoiding the parent you don’t. The characters’ interactions are very believable, so as a psychological study, the film works very well.

Unfortunately, the sci-fi/horror nature of the unexplained black house-cozy and the increasingly sinister messages from the TV mean that a psychological study won’t really answer the questions viewers have, and the initial good balance of the two themes is completely destroyed by the ending.

The ending offers a weird “explanation” for the wall, the TV messages, and the bizarre tubes suddenly attached to the newborn baby … but other than backing away from the house and showing how the whole neighbourhood has been transformed into some kind of alien ant-farm, we don’t get a clear idea of what the purpose was here or how the family inside played into that purpose. Are they in fact aliens? For all we know it is the government, and the government has turned on the neighbourhood for some reason. If it’s aliens, are they taking over? Messing with us in the alien equivalent of cow-tipping? Doing their own psychological study? They obviously needed the baby for something, but we don’t know what – is the baby a new messiah? A new Adam to some alien Eve? A snack? We don’t know.

Even as a psychological study it falls down in the end, because none of the issues addressed throughout the film are ever really resolved one way or the other or even discussed by the characters. It’s just a nightmare holiday with family that gets worse because sci-fi-reasons. It’s just a possible-alien-takeover that gets worse because dysfunctional-family-holidays. Other films have balanced two themes before with great success – Mr. and Mrs. Smith, for example, where the spy-action-thriller is really about their marriage, or Shaun of the Dead, where the zombie film is really about Shaun getting his life in order. This film does not succeed. It ends up just being neither fish nor fowl with an ending so ambiguous that you wonder if you accidentally fast-forwarded over important plot points.

And it’s really a shame, because the atmosphere was so compelling, all the people acted so well, and the effects were creative and quality; this could have been both a really interesting explore into how people deal with the unknown and a suspenseful, creepy sci-fi/horror whodunit … but ultimately it was neither.

Plus there was a very pregnant woman whose baby had some mystical significance that we never discover – it’s just an overused trope of convenience at that point, and therefore just annoying.

Why did the baby have tubes put in? Was it that the TV was becoming sentient … maybe? If it’s so smart that it can take over the neighbourhood and build impenetrable barriers, why did it pick green arcade font? So many unanswered questions …

popcorn icon 5 out of 10

Adventures in Streaming

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *

* now with spoilers *

The Secret

The Secret (Netflix Original 2018 Indonesia) is in many respects a typical haunting movie.

Kanaya, a young woman upset with her father for marrying a woman half his age, drives angrily away from the house, swerves to miss something in the road, and crashes into a tree, knocking herself out and landing herself in the hospital. Her boyfriend is there when she wakes up, explaining that she’s been in a car accident and that he will take her to her family’s summer home in the country to convalesce.

While still in the hospital, Kanaya experiences a couple of paranormal things, and sees a pretty grisly looking ghost that attacks her in the middle of the night. The ghost seems to follow her to the summer home, but Kanaya’s attention is focused more on the neighbours, whose little girl introduces her to her nanny. The nanny befriends Kanaya, and the two spend time together looking after the little girl and playing games with her – games like hide-and-seek, during which Kanaya ends up in an abandoned house fleeing from the persistent ghost from the hospital. She’s also noticing that passers-by are giving her strange looks, but the nanny says they always do that, and refers to them as busybodies.

The ghost of Kanaya’s mother is also involved, trying to warn her daughter of danger.

In the end, Kanaya learns the truth about her car accident, about her boyfriend’s actions that night, about the busybodies, and about the identity of the ghost that’s been following her.

The Secret is actually pretty good – the effects are practical and therefore convincing, the storyline is typical but engaging, and the final little twists of the plot are unexpected. We feel a little sorry for the boyfriend, but not that sorry. We do feel sorry for the ghost from the hospital, who’s just trying to be heard and seek justice. The little girl is psychic, something that is apparently culturally normal for the people in the film, which is a nice change from the over-used Western trope of “no one really believes in psychics or psychic phenomena.” But of course, since the little girl is psychic, we kind of see a couple of the twists coming about who’s real and who might actually be a ghost. Still, there’s some mystery about how many ghosts there are, their motivations, and where Kanaya fits into all this.

There are a couple of fairly effective red herrings, as well, so that we’re not entirely sure who all is connected to the situation until the very end. And the typical horror ending – where the bad guy wins – is perked up a bit by the bad guy winning against another bad guy.

The actress who plays Kanaya seems a little flat at times, but overall she does okay, and there are a couple of humourous moments in the film as well that make a contrast to its overall creepiness – helping it to seem a bit more real.

The Secret is ultimately suitably eerie, with a good story and a good ending.

popcorn icon   7 out of 10

 

Adventures in Streaming

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *

* now with spoilers *

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

I Am the Pretty Thing described itself as an eerie story, and I like the actress who plays the lead, so I gave it a try.

It tells the story of a care-nurse (Lily) who is looking after an elderly writer (Iris) in the writer’s home. Lily begins to experience strange things, and finds what seems to be one of Iris’ abandoned projects. As Lily reads this “project”, she suspects that it actually tells the tale of a real murder that happened in the house.

The ghost of the murdered woman eventually has the last word, frightening Lily into having a heart attack.

Pretty Thing is well-written and well-acted. A lot of the creepy stuff feels genuinely creepy, and perhaps for someone who doesn’t eat a steady diet of various forms of horror – including gore horror – the film would have been suitably terrifying. The mystery of “Polly”, the murdered woman, is fairly engaging, but the ghost’s dislike of Iris and especially of Lily is not particularly logical. If she is in fact just angry at the living, then the overall tone of the film didn’t really set the viewer up for that, but instead seemed to want to make an emotional, sympathetic connection to the woman who was murdered … so why wouldn’t Lily, a nurturing woman who had concerned herself with the murder out of human compassion, meet with Polly’s approval? Ultimately the ghost’s motivations were neither fish nor fowl.

A lot of the shots were quite dark as well, making it difficult to get into the eeriness since it was just simply too dark to make out what was happening on the screen (although this may be a personal problem between me and my television settings). Ordinarily this wouldn’t have bothered me over-much, since, again, I’ve watched so many “eerie” horror films that I recognize the shorthand of what’s likely coming around the next corner – it allows me to fill in gaps when I can’t make out the details. But because the story itself seemed conflicted about whether we liked Polly – or Iris, or Lily, or all of them, or none of them – there wasn’t really an emotional link to plot or theme to replace the creepy visuals. I ended up feeling, “I can’t see it, and I don’t particularly care what I’m missing.”

The final showdown was a bit lackluster; in real life, the lengthy build-up of suspense followed by being confronted in the hallway by a ghost would be enough to give a lot of people a heart attack … but movies aren’t real life, and (almost) every viewer knows that. To make a scene look the way real life feels requires a bit more energy, and a ghost that just suddenly appears in the foyer just isn’t that terrifying, especially compared to images like La Llorona chasing your children or even The Changeling’s Joseph slamming doors and pushing wheelchairs around. “Polly” might as well have been the neighbour coming to complain about trimming the hedges.

The “twist” is fairly compelling, although not unpredictable, and, as I said, the acting is perfectly good. I will allow that in real life, the kinds of things Lily encounters would be pretty upsetting/off-putting, and to someone who doesn’t watch a lot of horror, the eeriness would likely be effective. But overall, I felt a bit disappointed in both the creepiness and in the power of the story. It wasn’t a waste of time, but I wouldn’t really have an interest in seeing it again.

popcorn icon  4 out of 10