I often complain about the stylistic choices of films which intend to conjure up certain period visuals. A story set in the 1970s or the 80s will usually have a few bad hairdos and maybe attempt to thrown in some questionable tastes in fashion, but will fail to use the right kind of colours and visuals to really nail that illusion. Once in a while you get something that really fits though, and Ti West's atmospheric horror picture has a lot of that from the washed out look of things to the intro credits. It really adds to the tone, which is important for a plot of this kind where the homage ideas are clearly on show. But while the setup is excellent things take a few wrong turns towards the end, which I will get into.
The opening is very strong, which uses fairly standard use of plot devices but is fairly engrossing in spite of it having the familiar college girls out of their element type story to get things moving. It's got both a sinister air about it and an element of fun thanks to good performances and music choices that adds both charm and evokes some oldschool mystery. They get in a quick cameo from Dee Wallace early on to show some fan service to the horror crowd, but best of all is the arrival of Tom Noonan who is always good at low key, sinister characters. As the clichés of babysitting and mystery house in the woods come together, things have a lot of tension and it all plays out very slowing which is nice to see in this genre that can often to be filled with jump scares. If only this great opening and all the build up during the second act actually led somewhere exciting, instead of just being a big anti-climax.
So here's the problem; the finale. Such great pacing and slow burning tension should have a pay off. Something crazy and spectacular. It really needed to go off the rails completely, after all the devil himself is being alluded to. But after a minor encounter with cultists and some slight ritual activity, it just runs out of steam. Such a lot of time is devoted to the mood but having such a weak conclusion is a real disappointment. Which is a big shame when I liked almost all of the early sequences. One or two imaginative moments to rack up the excitement factor and get the blood flowing would have been fantastic, and the story itself would have been unchained. But all the reveals are so lacking that it has almost no impact.
Arnold Schwarzenegger hasn't had the most luck in recent movie roles, from several Expendables let downs and other projects like The Last Stand failing to deliver. The star performed best under action directors that knew how to put together sci-fi material which gave him plenty of silly dialogue and never tried to take it too seriously, with the possible exception of the original Terminator. This is unfortunately trying to be a gritty drama about drug cartels, which is wearing a little thin as a plot element for starters. The rest of the story has some engaging action moments but is full of military banter and obnoxious cop clichés instead of having characters that actually work. They cast all seem to be doing to same act for some reason. It's dry and mundane, and Arnie feels out of place. The film itself looks slick and is well made but the script has little flair and lacks energy, so once the plot twists and turns come along it's had to find them interesting.