House Of Bones (2010)

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Of the people who make regular appearances in SyFy movies, Corin Nemec is one of my favourites. After his starring role in 90s TV gem “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose” (aka Faux-Ris Bueller’s Day Off), he’s had a few regular TV gigs, but he seems to have settled on low-budget genre fare like this, where his faint air of self-mockery tends to elevate whatever he’s in – our favourites being “Mansquito” and “Sand Sharks”. How does he get on with this?

“Sinister Sites” is a show very much in the vein of “Ghost Hunters” or “Most Haunted”. It has a group of field investigators plus Quentin French (Nemec), the face of the franchise / studio host / douchebag. A drop in ratings forces two changes – Quentin has to head into the field to host the show from on-site; and they hire a new co-host, psychic Heather Burton (Charisma Carpenter). We’ve already seen the house where they’ll be filming kill a kid way back in the 1950s via flashback, so really we’re just waiting for it to tee off against the crew (four people, which seems very low for what’s apparently a network show).

It’s a completely standard haunted house movie, with the added bonus of a group of self-aware victims – they’ve faked so many spooky moments down the years that it takes a long time before they start believing what’s going on is real. The local intern gets eaten by a hole in the wall, the multiple generations of former residents help or hinder the crew (there have been a lot of deaths in this house down the decades) and Heather wanders round the house saying the sort of thing psychics in these movies say, with a portentous look on her face. She’s got real powers, of course. They’re trapped, too, which is completely normal for these movies, and the cameras start malfunctioning. You know the drill. The use of sound recording and EVP to puzzle out some of the mysteries is well done, bringing in some of the movie’s few genuinely creepy moments.

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Unfortunately, the way this movie sets itself apart from the herd is by being rubbish. It seems they’re trying to behave as stupidly as possible at all times, ignoring huge hints and even breaking the law and trying to bribe their way out of it. At one point later on they say “let’s stick together” then immediately separate themselves from each other; plus, they have a ton of evidence of the actual supernatural, evidence which will set the world on its head, and their reaction isn’t “this will make us the most famous people on earth”. It’s a group of idiots, who can’t decide if they’re supposed to be assholes or good guys, and their preparation for this location shoot appears to be nil.

Weirdest of all, though, is Corin Nemec. It might not be immediately apparent but once you notice it you can’t un-notice it – he’s never in the same shot as any of the other cast members. He travels to the house separately and doesn’t even get there til an hour or so into things, then he’s outside the house having a shouted conversation with the people inside – you occasionally see another shoulder in the shot with him, but it’s carefully done so you can’t tell who it is (meaning it’s an extra with the same hat on). How they match angles is quite clever, but it’s not like Nemec is that in-demand a name, so why didn’t they just have him there with everyone else? Or just hire a Richard Grieco or David Chokachi to take his place if he was too busy?

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Add all this to an ending which rips off nothing more than “Manos: The Hands Of Fate”, and you’ve got yourself something rather curious. Writer Anthony C Ferrante is now much better known as the director of the Sharknado movies, but I can only assume there were some filming problems or something here that hampered whatever they were trying to get at; or perhaps the idea was just flawed to begin with and there’s precious little the scriptwriter could do. Too much told, too little shown, which seems to be a common complaint at the moment, and too many wild assumptions made by the cast which are just correct. SyFy really could have done more with this idea.

Rating: thumbs down

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Ghostquake (2012)

Not called "Helville", and it's not a Homecoming dance

Not called “Helville”, and it’s not a Homecoming dance. Oh, and nothing else on this poster happens

The longer I watched this film, the more a peculiar feeling began to overtake me. This film is…dare I say it…pretty good! Whether it’s just the law of the stopped clock, or SyFy got lucky and hired people who could write, direct and act, is as yet unclear.

I like teachers who are supposed to be teaching classes, but are really acting as info dumps for us viewers. This chap is telling his students about the supernatural and how it’s real and open your minds and blah blah blah – I’d have thought that sensible, science-based folk and religious types would have cornered the market on teaching, but it’s good to know a few real oddballs can still get through. He and the main student Quentin seem to have some sort of connection, which I thought might be a gay thing but is sort-of blackmail. No need to worry though, the teacher dies pretty quickly.

But none of you are interested in that! By now, you’ll have seen the picture above and gone “hey! Danny Trejo and MC Gainey are in this!” Trejo is the school’s janitor who clearly knows more than he’s letting on, and Gainey is…well, I don’t think I’m spoiling too much to reveal he’s the ghost of the former principal, an insane child murderer and big fan of all things occult. Thanks to a magic gold coin, he and his…wife? Daughter?…can sneak back across from the other side and resume their killing ways.

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Against this fella are the sort of groups of people you get in a school long past closing time – kids who’ve broken in to hack the computer and change their grades; school band members practising for a show (with teacher Griff Furst, who eagle-eyed viewers will recognise from “Transmorphers” – thank heavens he’s learned to act since then); a librarian (an extremely short cameo from Charisma Carpenter); and the teachers and students who are helping set up the gym for the upcoming prom. So, lots of different groups, lots of different sorts of students and adults. So far, so good. And it looks like they filmed in a real school, as the sets are several orders of magnitude better than the average SyFy film.

I’m about to gush about this film, so I’ll get the negatives out of the way first. Quentin is, for the main character, a pretty weak actor, and he has zero chemistry with his love interest, Whitney (Lauren Pennington). Also, there’s no real rhyme or reason to the people who get killed – it’s nice to know the supernatural has some sort of weird moral code, but our villains just seem to want to kill everyone in no particular order. Oh, and there’s a smidgeon of “haha all our friends are dead” at the end.

But enough of negativity. This is a funny, well-made film! Gainey is clearly having the time of his life, laughing maniacally and spewing the worst, cheesiest, death one-liners imaginable. Trejo appears in one scene shirtless for no reason whatsoever, other than to show his tattoos and old-man-muscles off. Virtually anyone in this movie can act rings round the entire cast of most SyFy Channel movies. The plot moves along at a decent pace, and it’s got a good sense of humour about itself. Towards the end, the way they figure out to stop the ghosts is so wonderfully half-assed that you can’t help but laugh.

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Getting a bunch of teenagers, a few adults and something evil locked in the same place is a staple of low-budget cinema, and there are no new plots under the sun, really. What we look for is films that use those standard building blocks well, to show some basic competence at the art of filmmaking, and this one nails it, I think. And I’m not sure why! Looking at the films of director Jeffery Scott Lando, it’s not a strong CV; perhaps the motivation came from writer Paul Birkett, who’s responsible for some of the SyFy Channel’s funnest films, like “Ghost Shark” and “Arachnoquake”. The other writer, Anthony C Ferrante, is much, much better known as the director of the “Sharknado” movies, so perhaps we’re witnessing the ascent of the only in-house talents SyFy has, both on the same movie.

If you see this on SyFy Channel’s schedule, clear an evening for this and you’ll have a good time.

Rating: thumbs up