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Who would have expected this creepy gem to have come from Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, writers and producers of Glee?   Available on Netflix streaming, this 12 episode ghost story is frightening, well-paced, extremely well-acted and on occasion, darkly funny.

The set-up is familiar. Husband and psychiatrist Dylan McDermott and wife Connie Britton flee Boston for LA with their teenage daughter (Taissa Farmiga) after McDermott’s long-term affair with a younger woman (Kate Mara) is revealed. They, of course, find the perfect home at the perfect price, save for an overbearing neighbor (Jessica Lange) who is more than a little tied to the house. It is soon revealed the home is the resting place of numerous decidedly restless ghosts.  It’s even a stop on an L.A. “Murder House” tour.

The writers overcome the central problem of any haunted house yarn by first emphasizing the financial duress of the inhabitants (they don’t have the resources to live elsewhere) and then, when anyone in their right mind would live in a cardboard box rather than stay, credibly demonstrating that each family member is possessed in different ways by the ghosts who haunt the place.  It sometimes feels like too much of a stretch, and all the balls in the air can be an obvious distraction, but these are nits.  

The series is also graced with a plethora of strong character actors, too many to name, but a few notables include Eric Stonestreet (Modern Family), Zachary Quinto (Star Trek), Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under), Dennis O’Hare (Michael Clayton, True Blood), Morris Chestnut (Boyz n the Hood) and Mara (House of Cards). These characters – tied to the house but with differing agendas – provide the backbone of the series. 

It’s also clever. For example, Frances Conroy plays the housekeeper, and to Britton, she appears as a stern but reliable partner in the bitter war she is having with her husband.

But to McDermott, the housekeeper presents as a much younger Alexandra Breckenridge, posing a larger problem for the straying husband

 

An example of the perverse humor – when Farmiga catches her father in a compromising position with the cleaning lady, she sees Conroy, not Breckenridge.

The first third is sharp. Comic actor Jay Baruchel comes to LA to hang with his big star pal Seth Rogen and before long, they’re at a celebrity-studded party at James Franco’s house, where sweet Michael Cera snorts coke and slaps Rhianna’s ass, Jason Segal tries to convey the pedestrian nature of his sitcom to Kevin Hart and Hart is genuinely cracked up by the scenario Segal bemoans, and Jonah Hill shows pictures of his new dog, who is incontinent and doesn’t know how to bark.  There are scads of other notables shown in their self-involved element, all the better when The Apocalypse begins and they are dispatched in hideous, hilarious fashion. Example: a gaping sinkhole takes stars galore to the fiery depths and as Aziz Ansari clings to the edge, Craig Robinson responds to his pleas with a cold, calculation.

Unfortunately, the middle third, which features Baruchel, Rogen, Hill, Franco and Robinson holed up and survivalist, is ragged. Much of it feels like creaky improv, and the self-centeredness that worked in passing becomes tedious as the fellas bicker and crack under the strain.  There is a self-satisfied laziness, a “this is cracking us up, so that’s enough” vibe that bores and Andrew O’Hehir nailed it with “I’m all in favor of movie stars making jokes at their own expense, but an entire movie based on that premise starts to seem like a suspiciously large amount of upside-down vanity.” You know you’re in the tall grass when an SNL bit about chewing food for someone else is shamelessly recycled. Worse, Danny McBride joins the group, his turn is singularly unfunny, and he compensates by cranking up the volume.

Luckily, he exits, Hill is possessed by a demon, and a laugh-out-loud exorcism gets the picture on pace to its largely satisfying conclusion.  Good laughs, but wait for DVD and you’ll value it more, still concluding that with greater effort and less easy stoner yuks (always disappointing the next day), the film could have been much better.

An ingenious concept undone by a tedious pace, a dull heroine, an indecisive tone, and a cheezy feel.

First, the concept. The world is post-apocalyptic and zombies mill about, waiting to eat human brains. One twist – when they eat the brains, they get a rush of the memories of the prior owner. Our protagonist. Nicolas Hoult (About a Boy, X-Men: First Class) eats the brains of Dave Franco (brother to James), fiance’ to Teresa Palmer, and immediately falls in love with Palmer.  So, he saves Palmer’s life and an unlikely romance ensues. So far, so good.

Palmer, clearly an acolyte of the Kristen Stewart school of acting, makes no impression. She’s all smarm and attitude and lacks any depth necessary for material deeper than Glee. It may seem like niggling but it is not, because she has to convey that she has fallen for a zombie. She doesn’t come close.

With Palmer failing to communicate a romance, what is left is the scary.  It is not scary, at all, and the use of CGI skeletors – really evil zombies who have lost all their flesh – suggests the old stop motion visual effects of the Harry Hamlin Clash of the Titans – and not in a good way.

Since it is not scary, it should be funny. After all, talk about your clash of cultures. But it is only occasionally amusing. Hoult, whose speaking is necessarily rudimentary, mainly mumbles and moons at Palmer. While he is given a voiceover to explain what he feels and sees, the observances are pedestrian.

The picture looks just awful – again, not in a good way. The post-apocalyptic world looks more like a Meadowlands dump, the encampment where the humans are holding out looks like the porn set of a parody (Dawn of the Head? apologies)*, and in comparison to Zombieland or even The Walking Dead, the feel just seems chintzy.

It’s also deathly slow. At only 90 minutes, I started to feel like the zombies themselves, numb and mindlessly staring at the TV, waiting desperately for something to chew on.

*  I made that up, but I shouldn’t have had to.

Star Trek Into Darkness replicates many of the good things about Star Trek.  The characters are fresh and in keeping with the personas of their forebears; the action is brisk and the banter clever; the special effects are impressive; and the balance of fun and serious is just right.  It even has a better villain (Benedict Cumberbatch).

There are weaknesses. First, it suffers from Avengers-itis.  There are just too many set piece action sequences, including one where the Enterprise is plummeting in a death spiral yet Kirk and company manage to get around easily enough.  The politics are also pinko.  The joy of Peter Weller as a Starfleet admiral is lessened given he is a predictable warmonger bent on starting a war with the Klingons, and modern Starfleet feels almost pacifistic (basing Starfleet in San Francisco took its ideological toll). It’s also a little sloppy.  Two of the security “red shirts” sent on a shore party are forgotten in a shoot ’em up melee with the Klingons. It appears director JJ Abrams decided their fate was not even worth memorializing.  And why “kill” Kirk when only a monkey would accept his demise as permanent?  The picture is already an overlong 2 hours and 12 minutes.

The crew has also taken on a new science/weapons officer (Alice Eve), one so slight and dull that Abrams cheats to keep us interested.

While there are a few scary moments, and the young actor who plays the “disfigured baby” grown up is, in fact, truly terrifying, there are just too many problems to recommend the picture, including–

*  thematic confusion – is this a comedy?  Because if it is, casting such a frightening actor as the demon is a mistake.  Why is the screenwriter wearing sunglasses inside in the middle of winter?  Why is the neighbor wearing a Virginia Tech hoodie?  And why does he smile so much and then screech intermittently?

*  mumble mouth dialogue from the young actor playing the neighbor (he tells us the story of the house but we can’t understand him) and over-acting (“Who could that be?”) from the protagonist, who distrusts the script and opts for a play-by-play narrative.

*  sloppy editing – why use tracking shots if your actors are going to be looking back as if being chased by the camera?

*  poor scene locations – the haunted house is dank and scary, but it seems that a young screenplay writer who just moved into it would not have a Batman pillow case and  a life size figurine of Batman.

*  Will Larroca’s insistence on playing the lead was too much of a distraction.  He seems to be giving non-verbal direction to the camerman.

Again, this is a shame, because the actor playing “The Monster” is bone-chillingly good.

Word on the street is that the writer/director/star is in pre-production for another horror film, and he has some money behind it.  It may be make or break.

UPDATE:  My review has been reviewed, and rather unkindly