The Unwilling

Will readings might be passe as a rule, but in dramatic terms they’re wonderful plot devices. It’s the perfect excuse to gather together all the friends and relatives of the dearly (or not so dearly) departed in one spot, preferably some sort of large, spooky old house, for everything from revealing deep, dark secrets to experiencing terrifying hauntings. In The Unwilling, the group gathering together will face both those extremes, and far worse, as what should be a legal formality soon turns deadly.

The recently deceased here is Mr. Harris (Lance Henriksen), and his son, David (David Lipper) lives in a pretty good example of a creepy house, it being both isolated and full of odd noises and strange shadows. David isn’t happy to have a horde of long-lost relatives descending on him, as he suffers from OCD and visitors make his anxiety spike. Since he also suffers from agoraphobia and hasn’t set foot outside in years, however, there really aren’t any other options. He’s glad to see his sister Michelle (Dina Meyer), at least, though there is some awkwardness when Michelle discovers that her ex, Rich (Robert Rusler), is also there, along with his new fiancee Cheryl (Bree Williamson). Similarly, most seem glad to see cousin Kelly (Austin Highsmith) again, but are less thrilled by the presence of the black sheep drug addict of the family, Darren (Jake Thomas). Still, it’s only a brief reunion and they should all manage, right?

There’s an immediate hitch, however, as the group waits in vain for the arrival of the lawyer. Equally, there’s no copy of the will around, just a hideous old metal box that belonged to the deceased and which no one can figure out how to open. To make things more interesting it’s also a trapped box and eventually sharp needles start to appear. They aren’t poisoned needles, though they all might have been better off if they were. No, these needles are creepier than that, as they allow the box to sense each person’s weaknesses, from greed to vanity to Darren’s overwhelming need for drugs. And that’s where the party really gets going.

Darren and the mysterious box.
Now that’s one ugly looking box.

 

My first thought was that this would be one of those movies filled with bizarre supernatural rules that the characters somehow miraculously figure out even though there’s no way they should be able to. But it’s both more straightforward and more horrific than that — it’s all about what you want and need, or at least think you need. The box is more than happy to give you those things, since that’s how the box gets what it wants. It doesn’t even matter why you want whatever the box gives you, from passing whim to the most dire necessity, for the most selfish or the most altruistic reasons, and that’s what makes it so insidious.

What makes the film good is primarily the characters and the conflicts among them. Given the terrible father figure involved — Michelle says flat out that it’s a good thing he’s dead — this isn’t going to be the most smoothly functioning family, and it’s that tension that helps anchor the characters and the plot as the horror builds. However strange things get, there are still realistic characters and convincing problems for you to relate to, and that keeps the film focused and solid even when the supernatural aspects are at their weirdest, and they do get pretty weird. But it’s an excellent balance of horror and drama, with David Lipper particularly memorable as he does his best to shield himself from the terror through his rituals. The character might have become nothing but a collection of tics and habits, but instead helps to give a fresh approach to a fairly traditional script. Dramatic though they might be, it’s probably for the best that no one gathers for the reading of the will anymore.

Under the Tree

Konrad and his chainsaw. He has no idea what he's doing with that thing.

There’s an old saying about how you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family. You also can’t generally choose your neighbors, and sometimes they can be even harder to avoid than family, It can be a real risk to try to befriend a neighbor, because if it all goes wrong somehow your only option is to pack up and move, and that’s a hassle nobody wants. Still, in Under the Tree, both sets of neighbors would have been much better off if they’d fled to opposite sides of the country.

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Dark Forest

Kim and Franky kiss. Never do this in a horror movie, kids.

The woods really get a bad reputation in a lot of horror movies. I lived in the woods for the first seventeen years of my life and I never once saw a monster or a homicidal maniac. Even the animals aren’t all that dangerous as long as you leave them alone, though we did have badgers around and sometimes no matter how careful you are they’ll still try to claw your face off. Of course any animal can be dangerous under the right (or wrong) circumstances, which is my best guess at what the underlying message of Dark Forest is meant to be.
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Prodigy

Ellie and chessboard. Shall we play a game?

It can be pretty rough being the smart kid. That was my fate in school, and often the other kids only really talked to me when they wanted homework help. Also, I was usually bored with the books that were meant for my age group, which meant that I snuck a lot of my family’s sci-fi and history books to read, which probably explains a lot. But while I was a smart kid, I wasn’t the frightening, possibly preparing to take over the world sort of genius we see in Prodigy, and for that I count myself lucky.

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To the Beat

The adorable twins planning out their next dance moves.

All kids have big dreams. I always wanted to be a famous writer (so halfway there, I guess), though there was also a brief time when I wanted to be a ballerina. That lasted through about three lessons, at which point I realized I had all the grace of a nearsighted, arthritic platypus and that particular dream was shelved. The girls in To the Beat, however, actually have dancing skills, and perhaps more importantly the drive to work for their dreams, which you certainly won’t find in all 14-year-olds.

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4/20 Massacre

The five hikers. Wait until you see what they're looking at.

A lot of people may not realize that even in states like Colorado where marijuana is legal there are still plenty of restrictions as to how it can be used, who can grow it, and how much they can grow. So even in California they have what are called ‘guerrilla growers’, who plant and tend their crops in various hidden spots, keeping well off the beaten paths and sometimes even acting violently to protect their crops.
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Spectrum

The boy and his lacrosse stick. Those come in handy sometimes.

There’s nothing like waking from one of those nightmares that you can’t entirely shake off. No matter how often you tell yourself it was just a dream and it’s over now, you’re still at least half-convinced that you’re not really awake and, in true horror movie fashion, you’re about to discover — probably in some gruesome, horrifying way — that you’re actually still in the dream.

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Hunters Lodge

Harry, contemplating whether or not he's just seen a ghost.

In an isolated part of Canada, there’s a hunting lodge where three little boys grew up together. Peter’s family owned the place and his friends were always there with him, playing at being soldiers. Then, in the late sixties, the three became soldiers for real when they served together in Vietnam and discovered that war was nothing like the games they’d played.

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Dead on Arrival

Hans Dunkel. Would you buy insurance from this man?

A man awakens in a hospital to hear a doctor giving him the worst possible news: he’s been poisoned and has only a few days to live at best. Medical science can do nothing and he needs to make sure all his affairs are in order. Thanks to the 1949 classic D.O.A., this is a familiar premise, one that gets turned around and brought into modern times in Dead On Arrival.

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The Eve

The four friends in happier times, before the body count starts to rise,

Any place can be creepy when it’s quiet and dark, but there’s often something especially poignant and unsettling about a bustling, popular tourist area left empty during the off-season, perhaps still haunted by echoes of happier times. On the island of Nantucket there’s also a stark beauty about the place in winter, and in The Eve it’s perhaps partly this that lures a group of friends there to ring in the New Year.

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