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Better Watch Out (2016)
A fun film with a few twists!
Better Watch Out (originally titled Safe Neighborhood) is Canadian-Australian director Chris Peckover's second film after 2010's Undocumented (which is absolutely on my to-watch list now). It was an ambitious project considering the budget was low enough that they couldn't afford to air condition the set despite shooting in Australia's high summer heat, and yet the settings are impressive and the cast is even more so.
It opens with teenager Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) heading to one last babysitting gig before she moves out of state. As the parents (Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton, who I wish could have been on-screen longer) head out, 12-year-old Luke (Levi Miller) quickly gets comfortable trying to convince Ashley that age is just a number when it comes to romance. But he only has time for a few awkward (and rejected) passes before they suspect that someone is lurking inside the house, though the reality is something far more sinister...
** SPOILERS! **
I thought this was a surprisingly smart and engaging movie. I only say "surprisingly" because I generally don't have super high hopes for pre-teen or teenage-centric movies of recent years, but I should probably let go of that stereotype considering how much I've been impressed by the kids in It and Stranger Things, proving that age really IS just a number.
The only thing I really didn't care much for was the music. It has the requisite Christmas songs interspersed, but the rest of the music I felt was just a bit too... unimpressive? Expected? It wasn't distracting, but it didn't stand out to me either.
But the acting was solid all the way around. Even Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton - who are only on screen for maybe 10 minutes total - were great (no surprise there). Everyone was believable, and I thought Luke Miller did a great job at playing this character that is sort of a yet-to-be-polished villain. The evil intent is there, and it's disturbing to see, but he's still a kid in many ways (evidenced by the sheer number of times his voice squeaks throughout the film), which felt very purposeful on his part. I was also reminded of how much I like Dacre Montgomery (who you probably know as Billy Hargrove from Stranger Things 2), and I was a bit blown away to see that he's only 23.
I think what impressed me the most was how smart the script was. I was disappointed seeing the plot go towards what seemed like your standard home invasion movie. There's only so much you can do with that type of scenario and they made so many typical mistakes in the short time we're under that pretense that I thought it might be hopeless. But when we get the first twist of the movie out of the way, it turns into something much more complex.
It ends up being a movie focused much more on how insidious toxic masculinity and entitlement can be. Luke's advances on Ashley at first seem inappropriate but harmless - just a kid with a crush. When she admonishes him for his prank (and tells him he needs therapy, which winds up being much more accurate than it seems at first), you see a glimmer of something more than just disappointment in his eyes - something closer to hate - but you pass it off as him having his dreams crushed and feeling embarrassed. But as the movie progresses and we see what he's really capable of, you see how much of a sociopath he really is. These little stories told throughout to demonstrate how innocent and normal he is - him accidentally killing his best friend Garrett's hamster and crying about it, for example - all turn out to be masterminded and played out intentionally by him. It's a reminder of how there's never a guarantee that anyone is as they seem.
Luke is territorial ("she's MY babysitter - you don't touch her"), manipulative, coercive, and ultimately without much feeling aside from exhilaration at his own capability for violence (his victory dance after first whacking Ricky with a baseball bat, or his exclamation of "his head just exploded!" after proving his Home Alone theory with a can of yellow paint). The most disturbing part of the movie is how we see what looks like a prank-gone-wrong, with Luke scrambling to save face, turn into what it really is: a well-oiled machine, with all of the parts set in place intentionally and diabolically.
But again, we always have this juxtaposition of malicious intent beyond his years paired with reminders of just how youthful he actually is, which only serves to highlight the tragedy of such casual violence. Garrett reminding Luke that he still needs his help with a school paper due on Monday, Ricky having no difficulty prying the bat away from him, Luke scolding Garrett for smoking pot in the house because "my mom will kill me!"... he's still a kid despite his horrific acts. Which makes him quite a bit more scary - he's not threatening because he has supernatural powers or even because he has size and strength on his side. He's threatening because he just doesn't care. Him shooting Garrett was probably the most shocking for me - cutting off Garrett's plea of "I want my mom" with a gunshot to the head was basically the definition of indifference.
I also loved the twist at the end. As much as he planned out every single detail, and cheerfully danced around prepping the house for his parents' arrival, he didn't count on Ashley being one step ahead.
Smart and fun, definitely worth a watch!
Black Christmas (1974)
A Christmas gem
Black Christmas, also known as Silent Night, Evil Night (the title they initially gave it for the first American screenings so movie-goers wouldn't mistake it for a blaxploitation film), is generally considered to be one of the first classic slasher flicks, and apparently even had a hand in inspiring John Carpenter's Halloween. But you might know director Bob Clark from a very different Christmas movie - one that will probably be playing on at least one 24-hour loop on some basic cable channel this week - A Christmas Story.
It's a shame that this movie didn't get the recognition it deserved at the time, but it has gone on to become a cult horror film in the years since. It's smart, well-acted, wonderfully shot, terrifying, and even genuinely funny at times.
** SPOILERS! **
I knew I was in for a treat during the opening shots, moving seamlessly between the inside and outside of the beautiful sorority house and showing POV shots of the mysterious killer making his way around the home (I especially loved the shot of him climbing the trellis). There's a great theme throughout of happy, celebratory, or even just mundane things going on in the house while the killer lurks within... super creepy. I think the whole "Babysitter and the Man Upstairs" legend in general is TERRIFYING so the use of it was great - it's one thing to know that the threat is outside trying to get in, but what about when you're locking it inside with you? The search party coming by and almost cheerfully reminding the girls to "just keep your doors and windows locked and you'll be safe!" was a chilling reminder.
The phone calls were surprisingly scary - and surprisingly vulgar. The killer's alternating between multiple voices/personalities, seeming to scold himself at times, crying, screaming... the calls became more and more frenzied and his incomprehensible fury makes him unrecognizable as even a human threat. There's no way to know his background, his motives, which makes him terrifying in a much less tangible way. We can't relate to him, we can't see our own pain or shortcomings in his motivation, which makes him completely unpredictable and alien.
I enjoyed that, aside from the (possibly unrelated?) girl being killed in the nearby park, the main characters don't have any idea that murder is afoot until it's too late. The victims themselves have NO idea, but even Jess (Olivia Hussey) has no indication that anyone has been killed until she finally swings Barb's bedroom door open in the last 15 minutes or so - we're the only people privy to that information.
Speaking of which, the kills - surprisingly few, really, considering its status as a slasher film - are all creative and well done. There's no lingering on blood spurting from knife wounds, no over-exaggerated looks of horror that go on for too long, no shirts being ripped open for no reason besides showing a hint of breasts. They're quick and effective but still fun. My favorite is probably Barb being stabbed with her own crystal unicorn grabbed from behind her bed - shot beautifully and the juxtaposition of Jess listening to a young choir singing carols downstairs is just awesome - but the image of Clare in the rocking chair with the plastic garment bag sucked into her mouth is classic for a reason. That reveal definitely got a gasp from me, and the occasional return to the attic - showing his hand rocking the chair her corpse sat in, or her cat innocently licking the bag she was contained in - was a cruel reminder that the search for her was hopeless.
There's no denying that there's a strong feminist undertone to the whole film - or, really, far less subtle than that. This movie taking place in the early 70's - and just a year after Roe v. Wade was decided - is important context for its content. Women being terrorized by a dominating and violent male presence is par for the course for countless horror and slasher films, but it feels more relevant here, more close to home. Barb's murder being the most intimate - taking place in her own bedroom, practically in the throes of sleep, with one of her own belongings - was no accident considering we saw her crassness offend multiple male authority figures (Clare's father and a local sergeant, most obviously, but she fights back - verbally anyway - against the crazed prank caller, too).
In addition to the more direct threat of the looming killer, we have more pervasive examples of men attempting to silence women in a variety of ways. The bumbling sergeant first ignoring Clare going missing because she's probably shacked up with some guy and then ignoring the prank calls because it's "probably one of your boyfriends playing a joke". Clare's father is basically just walking disapproval throughout the entire movie, turning his nose up at Mrs. Mac's language, posters around the sorority house, and Barb's attempts to be humorous in her slurred, drunken state.
And, more directly, there is Jess informing her boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea), in no unclear terms that she is pregnant with his child and seeking an abortion. Again, the freshness of Roe v. Wade in American society informed his hateful response - "don't you think about anyone but yourself", and later "let's get one thing straight: you are not going to abort that baby". He's outraged at the idea that she dare make a decision about her own body without his express approval, and is pushed further into his own spiral of deflecting blame when she rejects his very matter-of-fact marriage proposal. He's belligerent to the point of being rightfully suspected as the killer - especially after seeing him destroy that piano after his unfavorable recital.
The irony of such gruesome acts being carried out during what is supposed to be the happiest, coziest time of year is constant but not obnoxiously so - it's more something that we notice rather than something that is being told to us, if that makes sense. The warm glow of the colored Christmas lights, the metallic tinsel on the wreaths, the campus emptying out as people scurry off to see their families... it all feels incredibly nostalgic until we remember there's a goddamn psychopath holed up in the attic.
Which leads us to the ending, which is amazingly dark, even for a horror flick. There is so often some kind of humanization of the villain, or maybe a dramatic standoff between the final survivor and the killer. We almost get that, or at least we think we might, when Jess is cowering in the basement after Peter smashes his way in. When the police find her slumped over with a dead Peter on top of her, we think there's a chance - albeit small - that the nightmare is over. Jess has not only defeated her would-be killer, but she's defeated this domineering male presence that is trying to control her. But as the camera pans away from her, sedated in bed, and glides by the attic - mumbling and giggling echoing off the walls - and eventually outside, we hear the phone ringing and ringing as the credits roll, and we're reminded that evil often does prevail.
Ultimately, a brilliant and sorely under-appreciated film. Go watch it now, get into the Christmas spirit!
Dead & Buried (1981)
Don't sleep on this one.
Oh man, I loved this little gem so much. Dead & Buried was only director Gary Sherman's second feature film (after 1972's Death Line) and it is the perfect story of a sleepy coastal town harboring a dark secret. Reminiscent of some of John Carpenter's best work (in particular, of course, The Fog), it manages such an awesome combination of claustrophobic mood, competent acting, interesting characters, and enough of a science fiction-y plot (and special effects) that it's amazing that this movie never saw the fame it deserved.
It follows Dan Gillis (James Farentino), sheriff of the small town of Potter's Bluff, as he investigates a series of grisly murders. The crimes already belie the tight-knit community, but he becomes more perplexed when it not only seems like his wife may be involved in what's going on, but that the victims seem to be reappearing, alive and well...
** SPOILERS! **
This was kind of a perfect film for me because I feel like it did such a great job at blending all of the qualities I typically love about horror films. It had strong acting (sure, not equally strong from every single character, but all of the main actors were great, plus we get to see Robert Englund in his pre-Freddie days!), memorable characters, shocking moments that were spread out enough to not lose their effect, some awesome special effects and gory moments, and a fantastic twist ending (that genuinely surprised me).
The local coroner-mortician, known as Dobbs (Jack Albertson in his final role), is easily the most captivating character of the whole bunch (he's more famously known for his role as Grandpa Joe in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory). His love of big band music is a central role - his first scene, driving along the winding road with music pouring from the open windows of his car, is great, but my favorite has to be him putting a record on with a careful, gloved hand before slowly dancing his way across the room to a body, ready to be embalmed. He views his job as an art - "A cosmetologist gives birth; I make souvenirs" - and, in many ways, himself as a god of sorts. In one scene, he's annoyed with Dan for not finding the car crash victim's family because it meant they couldn't ask him to "perform his magic". He thinks it's more obscene for a body to wither away in a casket than for him to preserve the memory of that human being. It's admirable, in a way, and it makes his character just fascinating to watch.
As I mentioned, the claustrophobic feeling of the town is ever-present, due in part to Steven Poster's cinematography (who would later become better known as the director of photography for Donnie Darko). There are some truly fantastic shots, one of my favorites being the townspeople approaching the lost family - the mob of them, moving slowly as they are silhouetted in the fog, was standout to say the least. Dan coming in to the morgue to find Dobbs watching videos of various murders - victims he reanimated - projected all over the walls is absolutely awesome.
The score - by Joe Renzetti (who would go on to score Child's Play) - is so sorrowful, so haunting. It's perfect. I'm usually happy with music that at least just doesn't distract from the film, but the theme song in particular adds such a degree of moodiness.
The special effects weren't over the top but they definitely stand out among some of the cheesiness of 80s horror, like the charred man in the car SCREAMING when he was touched - oof, so good - or "Lisa" putting a needle through our poor photographer's eye. I also really liked the severed arm moving on its own on front of car, clenching its fist repeatedly, as well as Dobbs stripping the hitchhiker girl's face down to skull and rebuilding from the ground up.
I loved the feeling of the town sort of breaking down all at once - Dan catching the high school kid who worked at the mortuary applying concealer to his arm, us seeing the man behind the counter's fist cracking as the sheriff picked up his film. Seeing the sheriff go from suspecting a crazed killer to starting to suspect everyone around him - including his wife - is pretty intense.
And really, the entire climax of the movie was just... perfect. Janet rattling off options for dinner as Dobbs explains how the only memories she has are the ones he gives her, and how she was a gift to Dan... Dobbs welcoming death ("You will try to kill me, Dan, but you can't. You can only make me dead.") so he can join his "children"... Janet begging Dan to bury him. It was dramatic and heartbreaking (a tearful Dan burying Jan - and watching her pull handfuls of dirt over her own face - was just... wow) and almost suffocating (the entire town coming over, one by one, to drop flowers and well wishes at her grave, to Dan's horror) and I was on the edge of my seat and then THAT TWIST ENDING! Just... too good. TOO GOOD.
Seriously, don't sleep on this one. It's freaking incredible.
A fun survival flick with promise!
Director Christopher Denham's sophomore effort, Preservation, is a classic survival thriller. While it shows a decent amount of strength and promise with its decently solid cast, cinematography, and even music, it falls behind with a painfully stereotypical script and a message that, while relevant, is a bit too plainspoken.
The story follows busy finance manager Mike (Aaron Staton) and his anesthesiologist wife Wit (Wrenn Schmidt) as they head into the woods with Mike's brother, Sean (Pablo Schreiber), on a camping trip that Mike hopes will help Sean through his transition back into normal life after being mysteriously discharged from the military. After they wake up the next morning with all of their camping supplies and weapons missing they must decide if they will fracture apart out of jealousy and paranoia or band together to fight the unseen hunters...
** SPOILERS! **
The movie opens right up with cliche after cliche and they never really stop. The camera slowly follows the gang's truck as it winds its way deeper into the wilderness... two brothers bonding over stories of their reckless youth in the front seat - pausing only to clink their beer bottles together in cheers - as the one brother's wife expresses her desire to go antiquing from the back... ignoring a "closed" sign on a state park and charging on undeterred... you get the idea (and this is only maybe the first 10 minutes).
We also find out on the way in how much of a workaholic Mike is and how much it frustrates Wit who, naturally, is pregnant but unsure how to tell him. Sean is your stereotypical grizzled veteran and we never do find out why he was discharged from the military, but he makes no secret of how many tips he picked up from his life of combat or how much he prefers to be off the grid, relying only on his own instincts (and his German shepherd). He also doesn't hide his obvious attraction to Wit. He makes countless deep, foreboding comments about the art of hunting - "just because you don't see 'em doesn't mean they're not there - we're not watching them, they're watching us", or his musing on the fact that humans are the only species who kill because it's fun, for example - and you really do get a feeling initially that he might be the one behind the missing gear, whether it be intentionally or through him acting out against imagined forces brought on by his PTSD. I think it would have made the film a bit more interesting (and unique) if that had been the case.
The whole "cat and mouse" aspect of the movie was fun, honestly, as well as terrifying. The idea that there are people hiding amongst the trees, able to see you even if you can't see them, is bone-chilling. The reveal of who the hunters really were - essentially just bored, media-desensitized kids - was even more so. That point was driven home a little bit too hard at times - the teenagers alternating between playing violent first person shooter games on their phones and texting each other while they're two feet away - but I think the casualness of them out making other humans their prey before they head home for dinner with their parents made them an even more frightening killer than a more experienced, calculated one. The final killer stepping away from tying Wit up with jumper cables to have a cheerful chat with his mom, apologizing for making her worry, was a clever addition, I thought.
Most horror movies - especially ones where people are being chased by killers - give in to the typical cliches at least once or twice. This one took a bit more liberty with that, having ALL THREE of the protagonists make the same fatal mistake: turning their back on an assailant that is incorrectly assumed to be down for the count. I can understand Wit or Mike doing this - they are presumed to have no real experience in this type of scenario - but the combat veteran who spends most of his dialogue mentioning his hunting skills being the first one to make it? How does that work? Mike spends no time wondering why their water is hung in an odd cluster from a tree and steps on an animal trap before later deciding a plastic Port-a-Potty (that he is loudly shaking while trying to obtain a weapon) would be the absolute best place to hide. Even the killers themselves don't seem to stand up to logic - letting themselves be lured into the exact same traps they've been setting, not hearing Mike rip the top off the Port-a-Potty mere feet above their heads.
I always love a strong female character, especially when she's the lone survivor of an assault. Wit manages to live out the Artemis and Callisto mythology that Sean had earlier told them about - the little girl defeating the bear by becoming one herself. I do wish the director hadn't felt the need to not only make her a vegan (earlier proclaiming how she's not the hunting type because she couldn't bring herself to kill) but newly pregnant in order to power her along on this survivor's journey. When her and Mike separate we even get that cheesy moment of her exclaiming "I can't do this alone!" and Mike responding "you aren't" as he tenderly places a hand on her belly. Why?? Why do we have to give a woman more reasons to survive than just simply survival itself? Does she really need to be fighting for her unborn child to find unknown strength inside herself?
It DID have some truly scary moments, though - ones that make us really able to feel the isolation, the hopelessness, that someone might feel in a scenario like this. Wit finally reaching Mike on the radio only for him to tell her, "They're going to find you and they're going to kill you unless you kill them first. Kill. Them. All." gave me a chill, especially when she looks out over the hills and sees the masked kids biking towards her. The hunters recording the deaths on their cell phones hit a little close to home. Even Wit's complete 180 - almost calling 911 after she successfully fights off the second kid but apparently deciding she would rather hunt down her final prey instead - is a disturbing reminder of what humans can be capable of. I mean, jesus, she removes the kid's mask so she can look into his face while he dies next to her.
I thought the ending was pretty great, too. Slowly, painfully riding her way into town and sharing that moment with the kid in the shopping cart - them both pulling their imaginary triggers at each other - was good. It was moments like that one and a few other clever bits that make it so Christopher Denham is still on my watch list, because I think he's got some even better projects up his sleeves.
Ultimately, a fun survival flick with promise. Worth a watch!
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Where will it tickle you?
The Silence of the Lambs, the second film adaptation of one of Thomas Harris's novels featuring the character of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, is just a masterpiece. There's no other way to describe it. It was only the third film to win Academy Awards in all of the top five categories (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Adapted Screenplay), the first Best Picture winner widely considered to be a horror movie (only the third even nominated), and it is considered "culturally, historically, or aesthetically" significant by the U.S. Library of Congress. It's one of those rare films where everyone is just cast perfectly — an amazing feat considering Al Pacino was considered for the role of Lecter (yikes).
It follows young FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) as she is asked by the head of the Bureau's Behavioral Science Unit (Scott Glenn) to interview an imprisoned, cannibalistic psychiatrist-turned-serial killer (Anthony Hopkins) who is believed to be linked to a killer they are currently hunting, known as "Buffalo Bill". Starling gets closer than expected to the doctor as she does whatever it takes to catch the monster at large
** SPOILERS! **
Jodie Foster's ability to portray Starling as both vulnerable yet commanding, young and green and yet self-possessed, giving sideways glances to the many men who attempt to hold her down or hold her back while adeptly sidestepping them, is one of my favorite parts about this film. She is repeatedly shown surrounded by men — in many scenes literally dwarfed standing alongside them — and yet she doesn't shy away. But the theme of women being used is pervasive throughout, from the blatant — Buffalo Bill torturing and ritually killing his female victims for their skin — to the more insidious — Glenn sending Starling, the young, pretty trainee, to get the information he needs from Lecter, all the while excluding her, dismissing her, casting her aside.
The cinematography, helmed by Tak Fujimoto, is intense and deliberate. Dr. Lecter is regularly shrouded in harsh shadow; the initial tour through Buffalo Bill's home is simple and unapologetic; symbolism is used with just enough subtlety, such as when Lecter is shown reflected and almost overlaid with Starling's face looking through the glass, or when Starling is grasping blindly through the pitch blackness of Buffalo Bill's home and world. Even scenes whose subject matter are grisly manage to carry a degree of fascinating beauty — Lecter, eyes closed, swaying along to the music, as we see the officers he just murdered with his teeth laying behind him; thick beams of light streaming in behind a body strewn up like an angel with arms outstretched; Buffalo Bill dancing, silk robe falling off his shoulders, tiny squares of light bouncing from a spinning disco ball.
As I mentioned, the casting is spot on. There is no one I could imagine doing more justice to Lecter than Anthony Hopkins — he is chilling, calculated, vicious ("when your little girl is on the slab, where will it tickle you?"), fiercely intelligent. Jodie Foster as Starling is naïve and while not completely fearless she is determined. Their chemistry together is what really makes it — the entire scene with the story of the lambs is particularly incredible. Ted Levine as Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb will make your skin crawl while almost feeling a degree of pity, and his captive in the movie — played by Brooke Smith — does a particularly gut-wrenching job.
The music (by Howard Shore) is fantastic — from the very first scene, with Starling running, drenched in sweat, through the foggy woods — it is captivating and haunting.
It just so perfectly balances the themes of intelligent psychological thriller and horror. It regards such violence and depravity with a cool casualness that is downright chilling. The dialogue is brilliant. It is brutal and unapologetic while maintaining a neatness, an insistent intention, that makes the aesthetic quality impossible to ignore. And the tension is palpable throughout — you aren't bored for a second — but it reaches a deafening crescendo at the end, with perfect edits made to maintain the mystery and keep you on the edge of your seat. Buffalo Bill watching Clarice through night vision goggles, reaching out to almost graze his hand against her hair, has been imprinted in my memory as one of the scariest scenes ever since I first saw this movie as a kid. And let's not forget how much we're rooting for Lecter by the end, almost grinning as we watch him deliberately trail behind Dr. Chilton, hoping to catch up over dinner later
Brilliant. Just brilliant.
The Blob (1958)
Your story's gotten bigger now, kid.
The Blob, director Irvin S. Yeaworth's second film, is such a classic in its own right that it's amazing that EVERYONE didn't see it in theaters for its 1958 release (on a double bill alongside I Married a Monster from Outer Space). It was both of the leads' feature film debuts — Aneta Corsaut (who plays Jane) would go on to have a role in The Andy Griffith Show, and Steve McQueen (billed as Steven McQueen in the opening credits, who plays Steve) would become "The King of Cool", starring in many films from Bullitt to Papillon and would be the highest paid movie actor in the world in 1974.
It takes place in a small town in Pennsylvania in 1957, with the film opening with a teenage couple — Jane and Steve — enjoying a date at a lovers' lane when they see a meteorite crash to earth nearby. In their effort to find it, they come across an old man (Olin Howland) who found the crash site first and now has the contents of the meteorite — a small ball of an unidentified gooey substance — engulfing his hand. They bring him to the nearby doctor's office, not knowing yet how much the whole town is in danger
** SPOILERS! **
Ultimately, it's exactly the feel-good 1950s campy sci-fi movie you expect it to be. It never takes itself too seriously, and the monster — essentially a giant glob of semi- transparent Gak — is weird and mysterious enough to be interesting but never quite delivers on the scares. It's more a building sense of tension as the kids try to convince adults and police officers alike that they aren't playing an elaborate prank — there really IS an alien creature oozing its way through town and killing innocent people!
The special effects, while cheesy at times, are overall quite good for the time period. I thought one of the first scenes — where the gelatinous mass quickly engulfs the old man's hand — was pretty great, as was the goo creeping its way under doors. There are moments where it's obvious that miniature sets were used, but I still appreciated the charm, like when the blob squeezes its way through the projector windows in the movie theater, presumably gobbling up some movie-goers and causing everyone to run screaming in terror (a great scene).
The opening song, "The Blob" (written by Mack David and Burt Bacharach), is brilliant — I only wish the rest of the movie had followed in line with that level of tongue-in- cheek humor. It definitely did get a few laughs from me — the man pulling military jackets and hats out of his closet during the air raid sirens before exclaiming "this has never happened before — what do I wear!?" was great — but I wish it had poked fun at itself a bit more.
The acting vacillates between stiff and humorously dramatic, in part, of course, because of the mediocre script. There are scenes that seem to go on forever with fairly needless dialogue — one of the early reviews of the film stated that it "talks itself to death" and I'd have to agree — and then moments where people are beside themselves with terror, like the nurse throwing acid on the blob and stating "nothing will stop it!". Steve McQueen still manages to be largely charming and likable (I particularly liked him trying to put one over on the police officer who questioned him about driving backwards), but Corsaut's role is pretty forgettable.
The ending was also SO CLASSIC. Sure, we just loaded this frozen, killer jelly into an airplane and parachuted it down to the arctic. Why not? As long as it stays frozen, we'll be good! The end !!?!
Definitely not a favorite of mine, but its classic status can't be ignored, and I'd still recommend it as a must-watch for the genre, if for nothing else than watching Steve McQueen save the town from being eaten alive.
Creep 2 (2017)
I will rip myself open and let you see every last inch of me.
Creep 2 is, of course, the sequel to 2014's Creep. As I stated then, I will watch anything with Mark Duplass involved, and he not only stars in these films but he co- wrote them with director Patrick Brice.
This sequel follows Sara (Desiree Akhavan), a college student who does video work on the side to save up for grad school. She has started up a YouTube series called "Encounters" where she responds to unusual Craigslist ads and, in a journalistic style, tries to learn more about the people placing these ads while simultaneously trying to fulfill their requests. She is becoming discouraged with the low traffic to her show when she decides to film a dramatic finale, and Aaron's (Mark Duplass) ad — for a one-day videographer gig — catches her eye
** SPOILERS! **
I wasn't sure how much this sequel would hold up considering part of the thrill of the first film was that we didn't know Duplass's character's story for most of the viewing. But they managed to come up with a fresh enough take that twisted it just enough to make it unique and almost new again, to the point where, once again, I wanted to trust Duplass — an impressive feat since I saw what he was capable of in the first film.
I thought the story in this second go was much more engaging than the first. There's less mystery and more raw honesty and vulnerability. Aaron is completely upfront with Sara about his reason for making the documentary — he's a serial killer who has lost his passion for the craft. You almost expect him to crack a smile and assure her that he's joking when he first reveals this, but he doesn't — he leaves it up to her to take it or leave it.
Akhavan was, overall, a much more competent partner than Brice was. Any movie that relies so heavily on the interactions of just two characters — there IS a third, technically, but he's killed off within the first 5 minutes or so — needs to have a strong dynamic, which I thought was lacking in the first film. Brice is a fantastic director but as an actor he left much to be desired, and their interactions felt strained and dramatically one-sided. But Sara as a character not only impresses the audience but Aaron as well — he is consistently surprised by her, exclaiming how smart she is when she tells him to "think about what Francis Ford Coppola would do" during a frustrating filming moment, or admiringly commenting "tough nut to crack" when she barely flinches after he tries to scare her with a spontaneous scream. Whether the bulk of her motivation is to boost YouTube viewers or to actually get to know this complex, damaged man we aren't sure (though I have a feeling it's both), but it makes her determined and at least mostly assured. I also loved that they had a similar bizarre idea of fun — shown when she appears screaming with Scotch tape deforming the features of her face as he tries to sneak up on her in the shower, or during their game of hide-and-go-seek in the pitch blackness. There's this bit of childlike playfulness in both of them.
I think one of the most impressive feats of both of these movies is that they really aren't horror movies in any traditional sense. The bare bones of the plot indicates yes — a person going into the remote wilderness to meet a stranger who will later kill them — but the meat of the film is driven not by jump scares and gore but this raw, uncomfortable, sometimes even a little bit beautiful (like when Aaron shares what is possibly his first kiss with Sara, if anything he says can be truly believed) stripped- down dialogue and interaction. The scares are much, much more subtle.
A big part of my own fear while watching these movies is the idea that you never truly know who a person is. Duplass's character — first Josef and now Aaron — has both this disarming enthusiasm and concerning spontaneity, with his excitement increasingly being interrupted with these dramatic dips into a valley of despondency. You want to both help him — a task that seems impossible — and run far, far away. He's impossibly charming, in large part because of his willingness to open up and expose himself (sometimes literally), and yet it's difficult to know what the truth is, even after he claims that he never lies. This is a huge testament to Duplass's acting ability — he is 1000% believable, relatable, and even somehow likable despite watching him put an axe in someone's head.
I thought the ending was pretty great. Again, I wanted to believe Aaron so badly that I really thought — despite it making no logical sense, both in the context of the film and the practicality of it being a movie with a third sequel — that maybe Sara would escape the experience intact. But then he gave her the locket — the same one he had given Aaron in the first film — and when he showed her the empty grave I felt the blood drain from my face. It managed a few more twists and turns before a chilling last scene Aaron whistling his previous tune as Sara seems to recognize him with a numb horror on the subway. OOF.
Once again, an amazingly smart and calculated horror movie with no bells and whistles — I can't wait for the third!
Grave Encounters (2011)
Grave Encounters is part of a long line of "found footage" horror movies — honestly, one of my favorite subgenres. It was The Vicious Brothers' (a directing duo comprised of Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz) first horror film and Minihan's feature film debut. I've now seen this movie three times and I still think it's pretty freaking great.
It opens with the producer of a fairly new ghost hunting show, Grave Encounters, explaining how the crew went missing while filming their sixth episode at Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital.
** SPOILERS! **
I really loved the whole fake ghost hunters aspect of the plot. They absolutely NAILED it, too — they were so obviously inspired by Ghost Adventures, it was amazing. I think I would have liked this part less if they had been super serious, dedicated ghost hunters but the fact that they were really just in it for the quick, easy buck made it much more entertaining. They were going into this asylum fully expecting to hear maybe a few bumps in the night, a few funny noises they could explain as legit EVPs, and filling the rest of the screen time with "arty" hallway shots and spooky music. The main investigator, Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson), even pays the gardener to make up a ghost story just to pad their narrative. So it makes it that much more shocking when they realize just how much activity is going on in the hospital.
I thought the actors were, for the most part, very natural and convincing. Sasha (Ashleigh Gryzko) drove me a little nuts, but I really liked everyone else, especially Lance (who was the perfect diva of a lead investigator) and T.C. (Merwin Mondesir).
The jump scares in this film are plentiful and honestly do get a bit cheesy at times. Unless we're talking about killer special effects, I am almost always going to be more of a fan of the more subtle scare. That being said I've seen this movie several times now and a few scenes STILL made me jump (and I was still scanning every still shot just waiting for something to move or come crashing down). It helps that I LOVE those dang ghost hunting shows.
Ultimately, I was more of a fan of the less in-your-face scares — a door closing unexpectedly, Matt finding the window open when he's picking up the static cameras, the abandoned wheelchair moving as T.C. was distracted on the phone. There are several scenes where we have a ghostly apparition rushing towards the camera with a distorted, ink black mouth (literally at least three times) and, well, that gets old after a while. There are also things like a hand punching through a window to grab Sasha, or a whole mess of arms coming through the walls and ceiling (is this where V/H/S got the idea?), that just felt a bit cheesy to me and not really in line with the typical ghost encounters (though I didn't hate when Houston got lifted off the ground and choked by a spirit, or the figure pulling T.C. into the blood-filled tub).
But the biggest selling point for this movie? The entire concept that the BUILDING KEEPS CHANGING AROUND THEM. The first time I saw it I remember gasping SO LOUDLY when they first break the front doors open with the empty gurney and just see more hallway on the other side. They try to convince themselves that maybe they somehow got turned around and made home base somewhere other than the lobby, but then Sasha sees the same "DEATH AWAITS" on the outside of the door that they had all noted when they came in. Then the realization by Lance that it's 8:30am and it should be light out laying down to sleep and setting his alarm for an hour and waking up 7 hours later the food in the cooler being rotted and full of maggots as if it's been in there for days the roof access leading to a solid wall. UGH.
Just the entire idea of being so stuck, so lost, within this one building is so terrifying to me. Every time they go to look for someone, or something, it takes them forever because they keep getting turned around. At one point they just give up because they searched and searched and couldn't even find a stairwell. In one scene they know they've climbed four flights of stairs but they find a map of the building and the "you are here" star insists they're on the first floor. It's maddening even to watch, imagining how hopeless it must feel to know — logically — that there must be a way out, but being unable to find it. Seeing that hours are ticking by but being unable to believe it. TERRIFYING.
On top of that, the building just seems to be becoming more and more alive. What starts as a door slamming here or a window closing there turns into there just being nonstop groaning and sick cackling and unearthly growls seeming to come from the hospital itself. There's so much to be afraid of that you can imagine the mind just going numb, unable to process it.
I thought the ending was okay. Maybe a bit predictable, in a way, that they couldn't possibly mention the doctor who had performed lobotomies without him popping up again in some form. But I feel like it worked. There was no possible happy ending to turn it around, and we still have some bit of mystery as far as what the hell DOES happen to Lance after his final sign off besides just wandering the pitch black tunnels in a lobotomized haze?
Creepy as HELL, truly, and worth a watch!
The Howling (1981)
Worth it just for the transformation
Director Joe Dante wasn't known for much in the horror world besides his 1978 film Piranha when he dove into The Howling (based on the book of the same name by Gary Brandner, though it apparently bears only a slight resemblance to the original story) a few years later. It was one of many werewolf movies to crop up in the 80s (others include An American Werewolf in London, Teen Wolf, and The Company of Wolves) and certainly one of the most iconic. Its financial success was instrumental in him being chosen by Warner Bros. to direct Gremlins just a few years later.
The story centers around Karen White (Dee Wallace), a news anchor in Los Angeles who is being stalked by serial murderer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo in his very first movie role). She works alongside the police to lure him to a porno theater where he is fatally shot after revealing his true form to her. She suffers amnesia after the encounter and her psychiatrist (Patrick Macnee) encourages her to take a leave of absence to his secluded resort in the woods — called The Colony — with her husband (Christopher Stone) so she can rest and regain her memory. While there, she realizes this group of psychiatric patients all have one thing in common, and it's not their doctor
** SPOILERS! **
A huge part of why I loved this movie so much was how self-aware it was — almost satirical at times. It is filled to the absolute brim with references, homages, and cameos. Roger Corman appears as a man waiting outside of a phone booth, while Forrest J. Ackerman is seen at the occult bookstore holding a copy of his own Famous Monsters of Filmland. There are endless subtle hints by fellow patients at The Colony — "I sleep like the dead" or "I figure another five years of real hard work and maybe I'll be a human being"– or workers at the morgue — "he didn't get up and walk out on his own" — or even Karen's own husband — mentioning several times about how he tries to stay away from meat, but voraciously inhaling exactly that when their friend Terry (Belinda Balaski) comes to visit, mentioning "I get hungry enough, I'll eat anything!". There are several cans of Wolf brand chili spotted throughout, a copy of Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems casually laying on a desk, Bill reading "You Can't Go Home Again" after he's bitten, a TV playing the Looney Toons episode with the Big Bad Wolf. The list could go on, but I loved all of the little references here and there.
The special effects are, understandably, one of the main things this movie is known for. Rick Baker (Squirm, Men in Black, Videodrome) was originally in charge of the monster makeup, but he actually passed to work on An American Werewolf in London (and created easily the best werewolf transformation of all time) and left his assistant, Rob Bottin, to work in his absence. Bottin already had The Fog under his belt, and rocked this job as well.
He clearly learned well from Baker but had his own distinct style — Eddie Quist's transformation scene is one of the most terrifying things I've seen in a long time. The skin on his face bubbling like it was about to explode at any second, his hands stretching to impossibly thin fingers, his eyes rolling around in his head shudder. I couldn't look away. Probably the only downside to that scene, if I had to come up with one, was how calm and unaffected Karen seemed — she sticks around, looking on quite casually, for the entirety of his gruesome change before she finally retaliates. I also enjoyed Bill's transformation scene in the woods (though that was very brief), as well as the severed arm of a werewolf attacker transforming back into its human form.
I think, most of all, I loved the humanity that this movie brought to the werewolves. The duality of their persona can be disappointingly understated at times, but this film brought to light how conflicted some of them may be. Clearly some of the werewolves have a desire to get back to the ways of the past — "you can't tame what's meant to be wild, Doc — it ain't natural" — but some, maybe most of all Dr. Waggner himself, want to find a way to keep their urges contained. Him blurting out "thank God" as he's shot with a silver bullet was subtle but so meaningful.
The greatest example of this was the ending itself. Karen, knowing she was bit and doomed to a life that she was so disgusted by, still wants to do the only thing in her power to try to warn others so they don't fall prey to the same beasts. Her willingly transforming ON LIVE TELEVISION as a single tear rolls down her cheek (and then being shot dead as families at home and drunks in bars watched, wide-eyed) was just the coolest damn thing and all of the viewers barely batting an eye, chalking it up to advanced special effects, is as relevant today as ever.
Absolutely one of the greats, both for werewolf movies and horror in general.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
A Classic for a Reason
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre — somehow only Tobe Hooper's second feature film ever — is as notorious as it is brilliant. It has been highly influential on a number of other filmmakers — Wes Craven counts it as one of his five favorite movies, Ridley Scott called it one of "only a few really, really great movies", Rob Zombie has sung its praises many times. There's really no other way to say it — it's legendary, and for good reason.
It's just one of those movies that could never be truly duplicated — it's a stunning combination of the talent and inspiration of Hooper, the setting, the 1970s aesthetic and film quality, and, in many ways, the circumstances, more bad than good. The iconic dinner table scene, for example, was shot in a marathon 26-hour session, which led to the actors truly — physically and mentally — being on the verge of breaking down.
The plot is surprisingly simple. Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) is traveling with her paraplegic brother, Franklin (Paul A. Partain), and three friends, Jerry (Allen Danziger), Kirk (William Vail), and Pam (Teri McMinn), to visit the gravesite of her grandfather to make sure it hasn't been defaced in a recent spate of grave robbings.
It's as politically and socially relevant now as it was in the 70s. Hooper talks about being influenced by how he felt about the world around him -- it was made in the wake of the Vietnam War, amid the investigation surrounding the Kent State shooting, at the height of the Watergate scandal. The opening text claiming that it was based on a true story (it wasn't) wasn't just done as a marketing ploy — Hooper thought of it as a response to "being lied to by the government".
The raw, gritty style of the film really makes you believe at times that you're watching IS real. It's visceral. It's unpolished in the best way. You can feel the searing heat, the sharp twigs scratching your face as you run, gasping, through the woods, the chicken feathers brushing against your skin as you lay, horrified and confused, in a room full of animal flesh and dry bones.
Leatherface is absolutely terrifying, if for no better reason than he is not some kind of supernatural beast — he's a man. He's strong and powerful and capable of chasing you endlessly while squealing like a stuck pig and wielding a heavy power tool but he's human.
It's filthy and gruesome but, surprisingly, there's a shocking lack of gore. The real fear comes from what is implied, and from the relentless mental torture. This was done intentionally by Hooper, and not for the reasons you might think — he kept the amount of blood down in hopes of getting a PG rating so it could reach a wider audience. But it's one of the reasons this movie stands out so much in my mind — it scares the hell out of you on a much deeper, much less knee-jerk level.
On top of that, it has some incredibly well thought out and downright beautiful shots. The colors and contrast are vibrant. The cinematography is powerful. The shot of the open gas station door while Sally waits; Leatherface dancing, almost childlike, in the golden light of the setting sun after Sally escapes; the camera panning low while the house, stark against a stunning blue sky, looms over Pam; Leatherface's first kill, punctuated by the slamming of the sliding metal door; the van initially pulling up to the derelict homestead; even the closeup shots of Sally's bloodshot eyes as she desperately scans the room during the infamous dinner scene, unable to believe what she's seeing. All fantastic.
Speaking of the dinner scene, the whole thing is just unreal. Again, there's no need for blood or gore — the psychological torment is palpable, both between the brothers' own family drama and their utter disregard for Sally's life (not to mention Grandpa, for which there is no explanation whatsoever). I can't think of another actress who has so convincingly and chillingly screamed in terror, and you get the sense that every single person at that table is going insane, both in the film and in real life. It is madness.
Oh, and a special shoutout for the music, which manages to be disturbing in a way that gets under your skin thanks to an almost industrial sounding, discordant array of clanging and chiming. It's perfect.
Worth it just for Archambault's role
13 Cameras (originally titled Slumlord, which I like waaaay better) is director Victor Zarcoff's directorial debut (anyone noticing a theme in my movie choices lately?), and it's an impressive one. It may not be the most original as far as subject matter goes, but I thought it was well-paced and held up a creepy atmosphere throughout.
Ryan (PJ McCabe) and Claire (Brianne Moncrief) are a newlywed couple who move into a new house across the country. Tensions are high as they are settling in to a new home while expecting their first baby, but things take a much worse turn as Claire's suspicions about their creepy landlord turn out to be more true than anyone could imagine
** SPOILERS! **
Above all else, it needs to be stated how perfect Neville Archambault was for the role of the scumbag landlord, Gerald. He easily stole the show with his ability to make your skin absolutely crawl even with the slightest look or exhale of breath. The scene where he comes to fix the toilet (which was just because he needed to readjust the hidden camera, NO BIG DEAL) and has the most awkward, uncomfortable moment with Claire as he forcefully places his hand on her pregnant belly yikes. Even just seeing his grimy, oily face — almost shimmering in the blue light of the TV screens as he watches their every move (and sometimes re-watches them on a loop) — was disturbing. If anything, I almost thought he overdid it at times — like, guy, every single person who comes into contact with you know you're deranged, dial it back a bit — but it worked for the most part.
On the flip side I felt like everyone else's acting was subpar. Not bad, by any stretch, but just mediocre. Unconvincing.
We know that Gerald is spying on them from the very opening scene, but the little clues here and there that they notice — Claire scrunching her nose as she sniffs her toothbrush (that he had earlier put in his mouth), looking perplexed as she wonders where a piece of her hanging laundry disappeared to, wondering why the dog keeps getting sick if no one is feeding him table food — are perfect.
In tandem with Gerald becoming more and more ballsy, we have the drama of Claire and Ryan's marriage (or lack thereof) unfolding. There's this sense of everything rising up to a fever pitch and with every phone call, every return home, every time Gerald's van pulls into the driveway, you feel like SOMETHING is bound to implode (like when Ryan rushes Claire to dinner before Hannah can arrive, or when Gerald sneaks in while Claire is in the shower). But I actually appreciated, in an odd way, that I never felt a desire for them to patch up their marriage and live happily ever after. I worried that it would be the direction the movie would go in — that the experience would make them realize how important they were to each other and there would be this tearful exchange of promises to make it work — but I was pleased that it didn't go that route at all, since they were so obviously mismatched (and Ryan was suuuuuuch a dick).
But back to Gerald. There was just something about how calculated, how methodical, how obviously experienced he was that was just downright scary. He wasn't just a passive viewer he improvised and updated as he went along: adding a pool camera when he heard Ryan making swimming plans with his girlfriend, adjusting the shower cameras for a better view, soundproofing the basement in preparation for a prisoner. The very idea that he was so intertwined in their lives without them having any idea was so unsettling — like when Claire sees their dog, Baron, warm right up to him and says, surprised, "he doesn't like anyone!" but we know it's because he's been feeding him bacon cheeseburgers during his regular visits. UGH.
I thought the music overall was atmospheric without being overpowering, though I didn't notice it a whole lot (which, honestly, is a good thing). But the use of sound in general — particularly when he opens the newly soundproofed basement door and we realize just how effective it is by the sudden burst of Hannah screaming and then immediately silenced upon its closing — was pretty great.
The ending I am not 100% sold on (I'm like 90%, relax), but ultimately I liked it as a darkly comedic twist that also managed to show just how prolific his victims are.
Overall, a super solid introduction to Zarcoff's work — I'm on board for more!
Bloody but deep
Only the 8th Turkish film to ever be released in the United States, and director Can Evrenol's feature film debut, Baskin is a grisly ride through layer after layer of hellish dreamscape.
The story follows five Turkish cops as they kill time at a small local restaurant. When they respond to a radio call for backup in the mysterious town of Inceagac, they don't know what they'll encounter, but a black mass was far from their minds
** SPOILERS! **
I'll admit, this movie surprised the hell out of me. It's been sitting on my Netflix queue forever and I just never thought it would be up my alley, but I was happy to be proved wrong.
I am fascinated with the concept of Hell — it's part of the reason I loved Event Horizon so much. It's just deeply terrifying on a level that I can't fully describe. So when I realized that Baskin focuses so heavily on it, my interest was immediately piqued. And I don't say this often — and honestly, I usually hate when other people do — but anyone who thinks this is simply a "gore fest" or "torture porn" for its own sake either obliviously or willingly missed a whole ton of symbolism along the way.
The two halves of this movie differ greatly, but I think they work well together. The first half focuses more on the cops' relationships to each other, specifically that of Arda (Görkem Kasal) and Remzi (Ergun Kuyucu). We find out that Arda's parents died in a car crash and his uncle entrusted Remzi with taking care of him. But their bond goes deeper than that, deeper than most can relate to. The scene with Remzi coaxing Arda to truly see — the room darkening, as if tunnel vision has snapped into effect, and slowly filling with water — was mesmerizing, and added some fantasy aspects to the film that I didn't anticipate. The shot of Arda underwater with the giant, doll-like hands reaching for him brilliant (and worth the half a night it apparently took the crew to capture it).
Speaking of which, the entire film was shot in 28 nights — not a single daytime scene — and it did wonders for the mood, and the dread, that permeates the whole film.
They didn't go into great depth getting to know each character, but I think they did a decent job letting us get a feel for everyone. Watching them all escape into singing (and dancing) along with a song on the radio was among my favorite scenes of the whole film.
The abandoned building where they find the lone police officer banging his head against a concrete wall is terrifying enough on its own — just as a physical structure it is so obviously filled with horror — but when they step inside their fears are not only confirmed but amplified. The depravity they find within the walls — severed limbs, bloody bodies wrapped tightly in plastic sheeting, rusty chains hanging from hooks in the ceiling — was like something out of a Clive Barker story. And yet somehow the spiraling staircase down into the utter blackness was almost worse than any of it, knowing and yet not knowing what was within that abyss.
The master of ceremonies — The Father — was perfectly played by Mehmet Cerrahoglu in his first ever movie role (he had no previous acting experience whatsoever). His unique look is due to an extremely rare medical condition — said to be one in 30 million — and it's just a trick of the camera that he doesn't appear as short as he truly is. I thought he was fantastic — the calmness, even the delight, with which he delivers his lines is chilling, and he's got some great ones (it's no surprise that the character of The Father was inspired by a mash-up of Colonel Kurtz and Pinhead).
I'd consider myself to have a pretty strong constitution when it comes to blood and guts, but the gore in this movie was tough for even me to swallow. The actual content (tortured, blindfolded bodies with severed limbs; forced sex; intestines being casually pulled from a large open wound; eyes being gouged out) paired with the aesthetic of the shots (all reds and blues, dark and gritty with candles as the primary light source) was intense to say the very least. But, hey, we're in Hell — what do you expect?
But ultimately, I loved the depth of the plot. I loved the dream sequences, the symbolism, the references to religion and culture, to sin and machismo, to fate and death. I loved how open to interpretation the ending — and many other scenes — were. I loved, in a way only a horror lover can, feeling like I was in the midst of some kind of fever dream, waiting to be jolted awake and back into a more secure sense of reality. Highly recommended!
Når dyrene drømmer (2014)
A subtle masterpiece
When Animals Dream, Danish director Jonas Alexander Arnby's feature film debut, is such a subtle masterpiece that I'm amazed both that it is his first full-length project and that it was hiding in plain sight on Netflix.
The opening credits set the tone — gorgeous, almost surreal landscapes and moody nighttime shots that look as though we've just awoken in the pre-dawn hours, bleary- eyed and sleepy — and the film is full of so much symbolism, so many touching moments, that you forget it's horror at all.
It is moody and refreshing and soft-spoken, yet bold as much a coming-of-age story as a horror film. It deals with themes of betrayal, secrecy, grief, misogyny, sexual development, and anger.
It follows Marie (a brilliant Sonia Suhl in her first role), a willowy 16-year-old living with her father (Lars Mikkelsen) and physically disabled mother (Sonja Richter) in a small fishing village in Denmark. She starts to notice some odd physical changes — a red rash here, an unusually hairy patch there — and when she is finally shown the connection between her burgeoning condition and her family, she has to make a decision about how to continue with her life
** SPOILERS! **
I'm always so pleased when I stumble upon gems like this one. It had been sitting in my Netflix queue for months and I think it almost became invisible after a while but I finally noticed it again and decided to dive in.
It's not very often that you see a werewolf movie with a female werewolf, let alone one that is an adolescent girl. It is commonly — almost exclusively — a man experiencing his teeth sharpening and hair sprouting (An American Werewolf in London, Teen Wolf, Late Phases, etc). So seeing a young girl be the one undergoing the transformation — a condition passed along from her mother, leaving the man of the family as the outcast — was refreshing in a strange way.
Marie's change happening in conjunction with her becoming more aware of the world around her and all of its shadows and secrets was perfect. She starts to realize how much her father and her doctor have hid from her — two older men who supposedly know best. She realizes that her mother's inability to do anything besides stare straight ahead in her wheelchair has been thrust upon her as a means of subduing her. She sees firsthand how nasty men in general can be, getting leered at by Esben (Gustav Dyekjær Giese) at the fish processing plant and later pushed into a tub of fish parts as a bizarre welcoming ritual.
But she is also becoming more aware of her own sexuality, immediately setting her eyes on Daniel (Jakob Oftebro), another co-worker at the plant. Her shorter temper and increased aggression might be a symptom of her illness, but it's also a necessary factor of not taking any crap, the sole bit of parting wisdom her father, Thor, gives her when she leaves home at the end.
So many of the film's most touching scenes are ones that include little to no dialogue, which is such an impressive feat and a combination of incredible cinematography, acting, music, and style. The brief trip that Marie takes with her mother to the ocean, with the waves crashing under an oppressive grey sky Daniel meeting her mother and squeezing her hand as he says hello Marie initially showing her father the inflamed, hairy patch on her chest and his expression that is a perfect mix of somber fear and understanding Marie finding her mother in the bathtub, motionless under the still water even the night club scene, when not many words were exchanged but the mood is one of wildness finally being let loose.
Daniel is a perfect character, such a beacon in the dark. It shows her intuition in a way, since from the first time she laid eyes on him you know that she knew he was good, almost a primal instinct. He is insistent about her beauty and yet patient, he is steadfast, he is loyal, he is committed even after he watches her murder a ship full of people, he holds her hand and says "I'm right here". He's the glimmer of hope, the proof that there is still good when everything else is going to sh*t.
I loved her transforming during their sex scene — it was primal and animalistic while also being sexy and mesmerizing. I initially thought it may end with her killing him, some deep, not fully understood desire taking control of her, but I soon saw that he was alive and well and knew he was there to stay.
They kept her transformation subtle, natural in an odd way. She doesn't turn into some kind of animatronic beast or an almost cartoonish caricature. She looks more human than animal, like some kind of hybrid or a sophisticatedly evolved wolf. Her small size makes her seem an unlikely predator — same with her mother — but we soon see it just makes her more nimble.
I just loved every bit. I loved the strong feminist undertones. I loved Marie's character becoming more defiant and confident with every scene, leaving behind any fear or apprehension in favor of strength and a little bit of healthy rage. I loved the stunning cinematography and the music that perfectly enhanced every scene without distracting or overpowering. Amazing!
The Innkeepers (2011)
Not his best
The Innkeepers, directed by Ti West, came a couple years after The House of the Devil, which I recently reviewed, and I have to say
in comparison, it's a much weaker film. It takes place (and was filmed in) the real-life Yankee Pedlar Inn in Torrington, Connecticut, which is supposed to actually be haunted
so that was certainly a cool touch. But, overall, I feel like it fell short.
It follows Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), two apathetic twenty-somethings drifting their way through the last weekend of business for the inn they work at part- time. They've taken to filling the long, boring hours of watching the front desk with amateur ghost hunting, and they find out that rumors of the inn being haunted may be more true than they realize
** SPOILERS! **
Ti West LOVES the concept of a super slow build-up, which I respect and actually admire. I don't think films need to be chock full of action from the first scene, and I actually appreciate the chance to get to know the characters more deeply and to get a feel for the setting, the history, the back story, etc, especially in a movie like this where the setting is almost a character in itself.
While I really enjoyed Claire and Luke (more so Claire, she was goddamn adorable — I never thought I could enjoy a several minute long scene of someone trying to throw a bag of trash into a dumpster), the lead up felt very long at times. It was occasionally punctuated by a small bit of action, but not quite enough to keep me fully engaged.
The scene when Claire grabs the recorder and goes in search of some fresh EVP material for Luke's very Geocities-looking ghost hunter website was a great one, maybe the best in the whole film. The tension that was built up by her moving slowly down the hall, face full of disbelief, as she listened to the phantom piano playing was intense and the climax of the two piano keys being struck all on their own was amazing. Less is truly more.
I wasn't a fan of Kelly McGillis's character, Leanne Rease-Jones, at all — a washed up TV actress who was passing through town not for an acting gig but a "healer's convention". She absolutely fit into the overall theme of the characters — people who are at some kind of crossroads in their life and figuring out what their next step, or their calling, is — but overall she came across as very cheesy and predictable.
Claire and Luke are convincingly aimless — neither knowing where they're headed in life and not seeming to care much, either (Claire muses "Why do people have to have such high expectations?" at one point). Claire in particular is almost humorously clueless at times, whether she's oblivious to Luke's drunken confession of his crush on her or standing, mouth agape, in her underwear as an angry mother exits the hotel, shielding her son's eyes from the nudity. But this movie is as much about the frustrating and yet persistent feeling of lacking direction as anything else, paralleling the living with the dead as Madeline O'Malley, the abandoned bride who haunts the inn, is similarly stuck wandering the halls.
I did love that, after everything, we aren't ever sure how much of the sightings are legitimate or just a figment of Claire's eager imagination, all the way up to her death at the end (she's sucking on an inhaler throughout the film so it's just as likely that she scared herself into a deadly asthma attack being trapped in that basement).
But, I don't know. It just didn't do much for me as a whole. It felt as aimless as the characters' lives, and a vast majority of the movie — over an hour of the 1 hour and 40 minute runtime — was spent building up to an ultimately dissatisfying ending. Not my favorite, though I will still watch anything Ti West puts out there.
Amazingly enough, I hadn't actually seen Saw until this viewing. I think a lot of the "torture porn" stereotype kept me away, which is a shame because it doesn't really fit into that category.
It was director James Wan's feature film debut, which is especially impressive considering how much of a franchise it is now (Jigsaw, the eighth installment in the series, was just released last month) and how much the character of Jigsaw has become such a well-known face in the world of horror (his puppet representation, at least).
The film centers around Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) and Adam (Leigh Whannell), two men who wake up chained by their ankles in a filthy, dilapidated bathroom, separated by a dead man laying in a pool of his own blood and gripping a microcassette recorder. They have to piece together clues in the room as well as their own slowly returning memories to figure out just who has them locked up and why
** SPOILERS! **
I honestly did NOT expect to enjoy this movie. It was a pretty effective lesson in not judging a book (or a movie) by its cover (or its hype, for that matter). I was surprised, overall, by how smart it was. Again, I had expected a sort of schlock film, rife with blood and guts and sadism but no real substance, but I was happily surprised by the developing complexities of the plot.
It is dirty and gritty and poorly acted, for sure, but there's a solid enough plot line behind it all that I was able to pardon it for the most part. Reading about Wan and Whannell's limited budget — which didn't allow them nearly as many takes with the actors as they had hoped for — helped. Wan had wanted to go for a more Hitchcockian vibe but he was aware of how much his limitations would prevent that, which is a shame — it's interesting to think about how much more intense this movie could have been with the proper time and money put into it.
I love Cary Elwes, I really do — I mean, come on — but the dude is not the greatest at American accents. He starts off barely hiding his British accent and by the end his accent is plain unrecognizable. It's funny in a way, really, but it does make me wonder why actors are even told to hide their accents to begin with.
I probably knew the most about Jigsaw before I watched this movie — just the general idea of him pitting people against each other — but I didn't quite realize the extent of his "murders". The man who slit his wrists being put in a room full of razor wire with a narrow tunnel to crawl through to show how much he really wanted to live (with the irony being that he would have to cut himself again to really prove it), or the man who was "sick" all the time having ingested a slow-acting poison and needing to navigate walls covered in numbers to find the combination to the safe that contained his antidote (all the while being covered in a flammable substance while his only source of light was a candle), or the drug addicted woman needing to cut open the stomach of an alive but drugged up man to get the key to unlock her "reverse bear trap" (oooof). The scenarios were all meticulously tailored to each person's sins, in a way — specifically catered to how that person took their life for granted in the eyes of Jigsaw.
I thought Jigsaw's motivation, while disturbed as hell, was an interesting aspect to the movie, especially when paired with the fact that he doesn't actually kill anyone himself. I can only imagine how maddening it would be to have a terminal disease and see people around you that you believe are taking for granted the very life being ripped from you. I also thought the reverse bear trap scene was such a crucial one because it showed that he is indeed fair in his games — she successfully fished the key out of the man's stomach and Jigsaw let her go, hoping she was more grateful for her life now.
I knew as soon as I saw the orderly, Zep (Michael Emerson), being patronized by Dr. Gordon that he would play a more major role later on, though it wasn't what I thought at all (I initially thought he would end up being the killer but had doubts when I saw how sloppy he was later on).
The gore was surprisingly sparse but when it happened, it was intense, specifically Dr. Gordon sawing his own damn foot off in a moment of desperation to reach his wife and daughter. One of those rare moments where I sat, mouth agape, and then started yelling "no no no NO NO!" at the TV.
But the ENDING is really where it's at. I had NO clue where it was going, and somewhat assumed it would end with some kind of bloody battle or hokey cliffhanger but DAMN, it surprised me. It was perfect, really — enough so that I won't spoil it for the 5 or 6 of you out there who haven't seen it yet.
Ultimately, I am really looking forward to watching at least some of the sequels. If they are similar to this one I think they will be super fun (and I really don't mind the gore so bring it on).
Honeymoon is director Leigh Janiak's feature film debut and you all know how much I love checking out works by female directors, especially when they wind up being as solid as this one is.
The film almost exclusively follows Bea (Rose Leslie) and Paul (Harry Treadaway), a newlywed couple who head to Bea's family lakeside cabin in the woods for their honeymoon. They are enjoying their peaceful, serene break from the big city until Bea sleepwalks into the woods one night and comes back mysteriously changed, and not for the better
** SPOILERS! **
As is common with films like this, it takes a bit to get to the action. In the moment, it felt like a bit much, but as the movie progressed, many of those details came into pretty crucial play — I was really pleased to see just how well-planned that was.
I loved how subtle Bea's changes were at first. Paul finding her naked in the woods was jarring, to say the least — and he did a great job at conveying that mix of worry, disbelief, and absolute confusion that one would feel after experiencing such a thing. It's no surprise that he would be on high alert that night and the next day, making sure she truly was alright. But her shifts were initially slight enough that they really could have been from a lack of sleep and, as she says, the stress of the wedding catching up to her. Maybe a bit hard to swallow — forgetting to batter the french toast or to actually brew the coffee — but possible to dismiss as just a one-off odd moment.
When they go back out in the rowboat and she spontaneously jumps into the water with her clothes on so perfect. You see this complex expression cross her face — she's trying to be what she's supposed to be, what she's expected to be, and in that moment she knows that she has failed. She knows she has blown her cover, in a subtle way. But she's still hopeful for a moment that it worked.
Ultimately, that was an aspect that I enjoyed — she didn't return from the woods having done a complete 180. I don't know if it was meant to be a metaphor for failing relationships/marriage in general, but it's a good one — losing yourself, perhaps to the horror of the person who loves you, despite trying to hold on, trying to shield the other person from your changes, trying to protect them even if it ultimately means killing them — figuratively, I hope — in the process.
I also enjoyed the fact that oftentimes in these types of movie scenarios — where one person in a relationships turns out to be not at all what they seem — it's the man who becomes the changed person, who becomes violent or evil. But Janiak flipped that gender stereotype on its head with this one.
I think one of the freakiest moments, for me, was when he comes back inside after finding her nightgown in the woods — ripped and inexplicably slimy — and he peeks into the bedroom to see her rehearsing lines in the mirror, practicing how to reject him when he tries to sleep with her. I can just only imagine the feeling of fear he must have had in that moment — fear without knowing fully why, even.
The other was when he looks over her shoulder as she's writing in her journal and sees that she's writing down basic facts — "My name is Bea, my husband is Paul, we live in Brooklyn", etc. Again, such a rush of terror, both for himself and for her.
I thought the inclusion of Will (Ben Huber), Bea's childhood friend, and his wife Annie (Hanna Brown) was a good one, if for no other reason than it ended up adding a sense of strange community to the situation. This wasn't an isolated incident for Bea. Annie was undergoing the same transformation, and Paul finding that out when he went back to the restaurant amped up the urgency to find out what the hell is going on.
The final confrontation between Bea and Paul was intense. You can see how much Bea is searching, internally, for the right things to say. She recites her facts word-for-word, exactly as they appear in her journal (chilling). She mentions wanting to protect Paul. He tries their pet name on her — calling her "Honey Bea" and waiting for her response — and she replies "we don't remember" (ugh). He asks her how he proposed to her and the way she gets it wrong — telling the story as it should have been, not how it happened — was extra creepy, especially considering how proud she seemed to have correctly recited it.
We get a touch of body horror here and there with Bea's "bug bites" worsening, her alarming bleeding (as Paul tells her he knows she isn't on her period), and eventually her coaxing him to pull a horrifying, serpent-like creature from between her legs as she writhes in pain. The gore was perfectly placed and efficient in its presentation — reminding us of just how much this is a physical transformation as well as a psychological one without being gratuitous.
The ending was also pretty fantastic. We aren't 100% clear — or at least I'm not — if Bea's intention really was to hide Paul, that her human and alien instincts were just too merged at that point to realize what she was actually doing by tying him up and sending him over the edge of the boat. But her intentions seemed genuine. And the overlay of her earlier, hopelessly romantic quote to Paul —"Before I was alone and now I'm not" — was just perfect. Highly recommended!
The House of the Devil (2009)
The House of the Devil is one of director Ti West's first feature films (he had two under his belt before this one), and it's a brilliant one. West is already carefully watched within the horror genre, and he's swayed me over to his side with this film. Previously, I was split — he directed one of my least favorite shorts in The ABCs of Death (I called it "the laziest of the bunch"), but my favorite short in V/H/S. The House of the Devil was released in 2009 but takes place in 1983 and, man, if you didn't know better, you'd swear it was filmed then, too.
It follows Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), a college student who is trying to do whatever she can to get some extra cash and move into her own place, away from her obnoxious dorm roommate. Her best friend, Megan (Greta Gerwig), drives her out to a babysitting gig off-campus which seems too good to be true, and, well, it turns out it is.
** SPOILERS! **
What impressed me most about this movie is just how much West nailed the 80s vibe. From the opening credits to the music (a mix of a perfectly atmospheric score almost reminiscent of John Carpenter with some perfectly placed 80s rock hits, plus the theme song which is freakily close to "Moving in Stereo") to the use of 16mm film to give it an accurate aesthetic it was just perfect. It had that spot on 1980s slasher vibe without taking it into the realm of being almost a spoof, which can be a tough balance to strike.
I mean, really, it's hard to describe exactly why, but the shots are just perfect, both in their accuracy to classic 80s "scream queen" films and just being pleasant to watch. Nothing felt out of place, nothing seemed to drag on too long, the shots were creative without becoming over-the-top, and it was meticulous without becoming too stiff. The shot of Megan looking out the windows as the camera pans back the entire sequence of her dancing around the house her creeping up the stairs with the shadow of her, knife in hand, moving along the wall behind her. All fantastic.
The jump scares were efficient AND sparse, which is something that is becoming all too rare nowadays. The hand appearing out of the darkness to light Megan's cigarette made me physically jump, and the doorbell ringing as Samantha is nervously searching the house was perfect. For that matter, the mysterious man with the lighter (who we later find out is the couple's son) shooting Megan COMPLETELY blew me away (pun kind of intended).
Tom Noonan as the mysterious Mr. Ulman was fantastic (as he always is), and Mary Woronov as his wife was also great. Both of them conveyed the perfect level of creepiness without being overly dramatic just enough weirdness to give you a healthy amount of suspicion without actually making their intentions known.
It was one of the few movies I've seen where it took over an hour for any action to happen (literally maybe an hour and 10 minutes), but the suspense was palpable. I was just enjoying the mystery, the build-up, watching every corner and shadow to see what might be lurking.
Honestly, the movie was almost perfect until the crescendo when we finally find out that Mr. and Mrs. Ulman are part of a Satanic cult and Samantha is the centerpiece for a bloody ritual in the attic. I don't know if it was because it was all crammed into the last 15 minutes or just how unbelievable it all became (Mother being a grotesque, deformed creature who forces Samantha to drink her blood, Samantha conveniently escaping from ALL of the ropes tying her down, waving the knife haphazardly in defense and managing to slice the son's neck PERFECTLY open), but it kind of took me out of it. Though I thought her suicide in the cemetery was pretty awesome, and the ending was just uncomfortable enough.
Even though it seemed like some direction was lost in the last moments, this was still an incredibly solid film, and recommended for sure.
Child Eater (2016)
A good vision, iffy execution
Child Eater started as a short back in 2012. Icelandic director Erlingur Thoroddsen later put it on Kickstarter in hopes of getting enough financial backing to make it into a feature film, and raised $15,000 this way, releasing it in 2016. I watched the full film and then the short later in the day and, honestly, while the full length version was very similar to its origin, I thought the short was better in many ways.
The plot centers largely on Helen (Cait Bliss), the newly pregnant daughter of the local sheriff. Her father volunteers her for a night of babysitting for a man who just moved into town, which is where she meets Lucas (Colin Critchley), a bird-watching boy who has a very active imagination when it comes to believing he is being watched and stalked by a boogeyman. But before long she realizes it isn't just in his mind
** SPOILERS! **
I know that the name — the simple title — of a movie has no real bearing on its quality, but Child Eater caught my eye in two different ways. I was scrolling through Amazon just looking for something new and simultaneously thought "huh, that's kind of a silly name" and "oh, a monster who eats children is pretty intriguing". Unfortunately the villain in this film doesn't really do a whole lot of child eating at all. What gives?
The acting was kind of hit or miss. I actually thought Colin Critchley, the one child actor, was arguably the best. And, surprisingly, I thought Cait Bliss, who plays the babysitter, Helen, was a bit better — or at least more natural — in the short. But the father was forgettable, the entire police force was laughable, and Helen's ex-boyfriend (or whoever he actually was) was just dead weight. Ultimately things were pretty cliché and stiff, with such classic lines as "I'm pregnant" and "I was the one that got away" and "They thought he was dead but evil never dies" and "This ends now" ALL uttered at one point or another.
The one funny realization I had while watching this was thinking about how much I would have a hard time soothing my own scared child. In any movie like this the kid says "there's a monster in my closet!" and the babysitter or parent says, with no doubt in their mind, "of course there isn't" and is content to just leave the room. I would be ALL UP IN THAT CLOSET and making sure I peeked around the curtains and under the bed, too, and then sitting on the edge of the kid's bed discussing theories of how we think the monster got in and out so stealthily. Probably not healthy for either of us.
The boogey man himself, Robert Bowery (Jason Martin) looks sort of cool and almost troll-like the first few times we see him but, as is often the case with lower budget films, he lost some of his fright factor when we saw him in more light and realized he more closely resembles a thinner and older Morpheus. I wish he had more back story to kind of flesh out his character a bit. Initially you think he's just a regular (albeit sadistic) old man, but then he's taking multiple bullets and still running after people and we've got this story about a black stork calling babies up to a hill so he can pluck their eyes out and things get a bit jumbled.
Ultimately, the short did more for me because I feel like the story was fine in a more abbreviated delivery. If the feature film had done more to explain Robert Bowery's character or motivation, fleshed out the other characters, or really done anything more than just having people running through the woods it may have changed my mind. But, sadly, not a huge fan.
Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Worth it just for the ending
Sleepaway Camp, a well-known cult classic among horror enthusiasts, is what I'd consider to be a "great bad movie". It was director Robert Hiltzik's first film (and, really, he only went on to direct one other distant sequel) and one he should be pretty proud of, really.
The film opens with a dad and two kids playing out on a lake. There are some teenagers nearby driving a speedboat rather recklessly, who tragically crash into the family, killing the father and one of the children. We fast forward 8 years to Angela (Felissa Rose), the survivor of the accident, heading off to Camp Arawak with her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten), who she now lives with. She is understandably traumatized by the events and extremely shy and quiet as a result, which makes for lots of teasing at camp (and lots of punishment for those who tease ).
** SPOILERS! **
Overall, this is your typical campy (literally and figuratively) teen slasher. It was riding the waves of Friday the 13th (released in 1980) and the similarities are unmistakable — gruesome killings played out in an act of vengeance on camp kids and their counselors. Sounds a bit familiar. But really, who doesn't like a campy teen slasher film?
Ricky's mom (Desiree Gould) keeps the weirdness factor up right away with her WILDLY over-the-top acting and just plain bizarre persona.
Despite the acting not being the greatest (is it ever?) and the sheer number of short shorts and crop tops (mostly on the muscular male counselors), some of the kills are surprisingly awesome. The counselor getting drowned under the canoe was nothing wild until you see his corpse the next morning with a water snake slithering out of his mouth. The disgusting pervert of a head chef got DRENCHED in boiling water and the length of time he is allowed to go on screaming in agony is, well, satisfying in context. Or Judy (Karen Fields) getting killed with a hair curler, where it's more about what we don't see than what we do.
This movie is also now responsible for one of my favorite moments ever: when one of the other kids says "Eat sh*t and die, Ricky!" and Ricky responds, in all seriousness, "eat sh*t and live, Bill". Brilliant.
But the real reason we will all remember this movie forever: THE ENDING, HOLY GODDAMN. Honestly, Angela being the killer didn't surprise me for a second. I thought that was obvious from the very beginning. But the twist of her actually being Paul and raised as Angela because crazy Aunt Martha "always wanted a daughter" was a doozy, and the visual of his surprisingly-muscular-for-a-pre-teen's naked body drenched in blood as he hisses maniacally was just wow. Wow. Wow.
On top of it being a WILD leap into left field, it made the motivation behind the killings a bit deeper surprisingly deep for an early 80s slasher film, really. I wish it had been explored more and given the attention it deserved, but it introduced these sort of half- baked ideas of sexual repression, trauma from sexual molestation, and being forced to live in a body that isn't your own into the film, which was interesting even if not fully fleshed out.
Ultimately, worth a watch JUST for the ending alone. For real.
The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
The Eyes of My Mother is director Nicolas Pesce's directorial debut, and an impressive one at that. It's an extremely intentional black & white art-house horror film, with more attention to detail than gore throughout.
The story centers around Francisca (played by Olivia Bond first and then Kika Magalhães who was particularly awesome), a young girl whose quiet, simple life is turned upside-down by the murder of her mother (Diana Agostini) and, shortly after, the passing of her father (Paul Nazak).
** SPOILERS! **
I thought the choice of black and white was excellent. There were many scenes that played out like beautiful, striking photographs set in motion. It also dulled the gore (that was more plentiful now that I think about it in retrospect than I honestly noticed in the moment) while letting us focus on more of the emotion (or lack thereof) in the more brutal scenes. But some shots, like Francisca climbing into the tub while bathing her father's body, are made into pure heartbreaking art by the color choice.
Charlie (Will Brill), the man who kills Francisca's mother with an unabashed enthusiasm that was disturbing to see, was a great character that I almost wish we saw more of. He just immediately made me feel uncomfortable even before having any inkling of his true intentions.
Each scene — every single one — felt very intentionally placed and timed. Nothing was left out, and nothing was there just as a frill it was meticulously planned.
Francisca both as a child and as an older teenager (we're never really sure of her true age but she seems to be 20 at the oldest) has this detached fascination about her. You get the sense that she's barely ever had to focus on anyone but herself. Her mother's mention of "loneliness can do strange things to the mind" couldn't be more apt. She works in silence, methodically playing out some truly twisted acts with the casual mood one might have while slicing a cucumber (I didn't mean for that comparison to be so accurate but there it is), and yet there's such a desperation about her, such a yearning to be less alone, and an unwillingness, or inability, to see how her desires affect others. Her stealing the woman's baby was another example: watching her cuddle and coo at the baby, finally having someone who will be forced to be her companion, as the child's mother crawled, gasping, towards her was chilling.
One of the few times she breaks this blankness is when she finally kills Charlie after he escapes from the barn. Her stabbing him is almost sensual, especially as she rubs his hair and kisses his neck, and it made it one of the most disturbing murder scenes I've seen in a LONG time
Ultimately, less is more, and Pesce really knew how to use that to his advantage with a brilliant combination of artful shots, a heartbreaking desire to ease pain and loneliness, and unapologetic views of violence and sadism, a sort of Americana-gone- very-wrong.
Dead Ringers (1988)
Jeremy Irons is brilliant
Dead Ringers, an absolute masterpiece directed by David Cronenberg (Rabid, Videodrome, The Fly), was loosely based on the real life story of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, identical twin gynecologists that worked in New York City in the 1970s (and, similarly, died together as well). Cronenberg may have taken some liberties with some of their more intimate details but the general story — twin doctors who seem to have taken the same path towards a mental collapse — remains intact, making the movie all the more interesting for it.
The film follows identical twin brothers Elliot and Beverly Mantle (both played superbly by Jeremy Irons), prominent gynecologists in Toronto who share a bit more than just career aspirations. When the equilibrium they've created between them is disturbed, they both begin spiraling into their own version of mental imbalance.
** SPOILERS! **
First and foremost, Jeremy Irons' performance in this film cannot be understated. I have always been impressed by him — I can't think of a movie that I haven't enjoyed him in — but this one takes the cake. Even putting aside his ability to portray the range of emotions and situations throughout the movie — the depression, the anxiety, the paranoia, the prescription drug abuse, the toxic and hopeless love, the fear of separation — he does it as TWO SEPARATE PEOPLE. The twins are similar but so, so different actually able to be physically differentiated in some scenes despite them, obviously, being just one person, but in others you lose track, intentionally, of which is which as the lines become more and more blurred.
The juxtaposition of two people who have chosen a career for their lives so centered around principles — doctors, sworn to protect and save lives and uphold the trust of their patients — being so morally defective (more Elliot than Beverly, for sure) is a theme worth exploring. Watching how easily Elliot starts sexual relationships with his (or their) patients and then passes them off, unknowingly, to his brother, is disturbing to say the least, and shows a missing link in the implied feminism in helping women take care and control of their bodies and yet deceiving them so maliciously.
Ultimately, this is technically a body horror movie, as is Cronenberg's specialty, but it's so cerebral in its approach that you easily forget that it fits into the horror category at all, at least how it is so commonly presented. It explores themes of motherhood, or the lack thereof, and what reproduction and child rearing represents in our society and in our minds (Claire's hopeless mention of "when I'm dead I'll just be dead" when she is lamenting her inability to get pregnant due to her trifurcated cervix, which thankfully is a medical oddity that exists only in Cronenberg's imagination). It explores the toxicity of co-dependency, of watching two people who are brilliant in their own regard slowly self-destruct because they are unable to exist in a healthy capacity, without the ties that bind them becoming more and more restricting.
Cronenberg is both subtle and yet pervasive with the aspects of body horror that he incorporates. There's really only one graphic scene — Bev's dream about being connected at the stomach to Elliot — but the surrounding obsession with "mutant women" and Beverly's paranoia surrounding their bodies being all wrong and not fitting his specifications for his almost medieval tools keeps the tension high.
True to Cronenberg's fashion, we couldn't dive into the topic of unhealthy codependency without getting to the point where you're almost physically uncomfortable while watching. Elliot having the identical twin escorts come to the apartment and requesting that one of them call him Beverly, or both of them dancing with Elliot's female companion as he strokes her arm draped around Bev's back yikes. But when Elliot brings Bev back for his secret detox and has him re-tell the story of the first Siamese twins and their deaths — one just hours after the other, dying from fright as a result of seeing his dead brother — was a heartbreaking indication of just how unquestioningly wrapped up in each other they are.
And the ending whew. I won't completely spoil it but it managed to be heart- wrenching and shocking while also completely expected. In no way a happy ending but somehow a perfect one.
Trick 'r Treat (2008)
A Halloween classic
Trick 'r Treat, for such a well-known Halloween staple, had a surprisingly slow and stuttering start. Directed by Michael Dougherty, it was originally slated for an October 2007 theatrical release but got pushed back. It was screened at various film festivals between late 2007 and late 2009, including at the 2009 San Diego Comic Con, before it was officially released on video in October 2009.
Honestly, it's hard for me to believe that this movie didn't have a theatrical release, but clearly the fans have picked it up and ran with it. Dougherty announced in 2009 that he is planning a sequel but it's been slow going. But, according to Bloody Disgusting, he's planning to dive back into production when he finishes up his current project, Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
It's an extremely well done anthology, with all five stories centering around Halloween and the traditions surrounding it. There's a school principal who moonlights as a serial killer, a legend of a school bus massacre, beautiful women taking part in an interesting nighttime ritual, a grouchy neighbor who finds his home invaded, and a man trying to convince his wife of how awesome Halloween truly is.
** SPOILERS! **
I loved this collection, honestly a lot more than I thought I would. I realized that I had been avoiding this film for a long time. Something about it just struck me as cheesy, both because of the name and, truly, because of the character of Sam, the little scarecrow-like creature with the burlap sack over his head. (I still thought Sam was a little bit cheesy but after subsequently watching Dougherty's 1996 short film, Season's Greetings, I like him a lot more.)
The stories are all woven together SO incredibly well. There are many instances of overlap — probably more than I even noticed on first viewing — that really tied the whole thing together. Too often horror anthologies are just a string of seemingly random short films, the only relation being the genre they belong to. But Dougherty paid attention to the most minute details things like having a werewolf howl in the distance in one short, and circling back around to it in a later story. The stories are happening at various points in the night, but it bounces between all of them, making the whole thing feel very cohesive.
The film had the most nostalgic feeling to it for me — it really EMBODIES Halloween. It walks that fine line between being technically a horror movie but not actually being all that scary but not in the sense that it failed, more in the sense that it has the perfect air of the holiday to it, of the traditions surrounding it, of the legends and the lore. It's tough to describe, really, but it felt like childhood in a way. Despite all of the terrible things happening, I wanted to live in that small Ohio town — glowing jack-o-lanterns adorning each yard, a lively parade pulsing through downtown, costumes and candy everywhere. It had an extremely homey feeling to it. It brought me back to being a kid and whispering about urban legends or jumping at something rustling in a bush while trick or treating.
Each story had a sort of cruel humor to the individual twists. There were times when it almost felt like a children's Halloween movie (in the best way) until you were abruptly reminded of how adult it really is (the girls partying in the woods stripping out of their "sexy Cinderella" and "sexy Little Red Riding Hood" costumes, for instance).
The one scene that really did freak me out — that tapped into a sort of long-standing fear of mine — is when it briefly shows a woman making out with a masked man in an alleyway during the parade. He reveals his sharp fangs and winds up killing her and then just props up her lifeless body on the sidelines of the festivities where no one was the wiser. I think that's part of the reason that Halloween feels so dangerous, so electric, to me — when everyone's in a costume and everyone's striving to be as realistically scary as possible, people tend to overlook what would be horrifying in the light of day.
And then there's Sam, the weird little kid made of stringy pumpkin pulp. I liked him tagging along to each story, being ever-present. It's amazing how recognizable he was even before I knew anything about the movie, really. But I especially liked how once he got his hands on a candy bar, he was good to go. Like dude, I FEEL THAT. You see the message written in blood all over Mr. Kreeg's bedroom — "trick 'r treat, give me something good to eat" — and you think it's some diabolical play on words, that he's actually looking to eat some flesh. Hellll no, kid just wants some CANDY. I appreciate that.
Overall, a freaking great Halloween anthology. Is it going to scare the crap out of you? Likely not. But Halloween is as much about the nostalgia, the hearkening back to childhood fears, than jump scares or psychological thrills. Watch it!
The Dark (1979)
OH MAN, this movie was something. I'll preface this by saying that Nate actually chose this one. Considering how many horror movies I make him watch in the month of October (okay, who am I kidding, it never really ends), it seems only fair to let him choose which one we watch once in a while. If you pair a ridiculous and loosely sci-fi plot with the cinematic style of the 70s, Nate is going to be on board, so we dove right into The Dark, and
it was an adventure.
Apparently Tobe Hooper was originally hired to direct this — he's actually listed as an uncredited director on IMDb — and it pains me to think of how much cooler it could have possibly been. When he signed on, the storyline was quite a bit different but then he fell behind schedule and the producers fired him and brought on John "Bud" Cardos, who had previously done quite a bit of acting and working as a stuntman in addition to directing a few other feature films. The plot was changed pretty significantly towards the end of the shoot — in an effort to cash in on the recent success of Alien — and I think the entire film suffered as a result.
There really isn't much more to the plot than there's a mysterious killer prowling the streets of Los Angeles and everyone is trying to either avoid getting killed or catch the killer or both.
** SPOILERS! **
So I actually loved the opening scene of this film. The initial crawl, actually, was awesome, too but I wasn't prepared for how little any of that would really come into play (aside from the fact that they just wanted to cover their asses so they could show a vaguely otherwordly creature instead of just a dude killing people). The music was all whispers and chaotic piano punctuated with the clicking of heels on pavement the lighting was so dark and contrasted that you could only see the occasional glimpse of blonde hair in a beam of light or shoes whisking along the ground it was great.
The creature itself — I'm not even sure what to refer to him as, or even that it IS for sure a "him", though they referred to it as The Mangler in the movie — is not much more than a less hairy werewolf in jeans. But wait, it can shoot lasers out of its eyes! Lasers that often don't seem like they're even coming from its eyes OR hitting its targets, but dammit, they are somehow still super effective! It growls and snarls a lot and it has superhuman strength (but don't they all?) but it limps along clumsily when it chases people. Ah, logic.
The cops, Detective Mooney (Richard Jaeckel) and his donut-eating companion, Detective Jack Bresler (Biff Elliot), are awful. Like they literally do nothing but scowl and pick fights with random people until the end, when Mooney is ONLY in the right place at the right time because he's obsessed with Roy Warner (William Devane), a man he had once helped get put into prison.
But it had some highlights, too. I loved the entire scene with "Sherm" (Keenan Wynn) and Zoe (Cathy Lee Crosby) in the parking garage, from him hilariously scaring her (twice) to his fevered sprinting from what he imagines may be the killer. At one point, Zoe asks him "you aren't afraid of the dark, are you?" and he responds with, "No, I'm afraid of what's in it". Awesome. I also loved seeing Casey Kasem as the police pathologist (I only wish he had played a more central role).
It has all of the usual oversights of a crappy sci-fi B-movie. The effects are pretty terrible. The creature — The Mangler, the alien, the werewolf, whatever it is — has absolutely no backstory, explanation, or motive. Two characters watch The Mangler break through a wall of concrete blocks WITH ITS BARE HANDS and then not a minute later think they can hold it back with a locked wooden door. There are all kinds of mentions of The Mangler beheading and eviscerating its victims but any time we see someone get killed, his laser eyes seem to just explode them. WHICH IS IT, WRITERS? Also, the thing is seemingly unaffected by countless bullets being fired at it, but ends up literally just going POOF! and exploding when touched by fire. Okay?
Also, the very last scene shows a blind man — one who had been shown repeatedly throughout the film but never referenced directly — as a voice-over tells us that "only those who walk forever in darkness will have nothing to fear in the dark" and like DAMN that would be kind of a cool line if the movie itself wasn't such a disjointed mess. Come on, Tobe, come back around and do this thing for real.
But despite all of that — every single bit — I STILL ENJOYED THIS MOVIE. This is the formula that can never be pinned down, friends. A movie can have everything it possibly should to be a quality movie and can be hated and a movie can be a hot mess of bad effects and stale acting and a plot that is barely hanging together by some weak threads and it can be super fun. This firmly falls into the latter category. So, ya know, go give it a watch.
Close but not quite
V/H/S, created by Brad Miska and the horror website Bloody Disgusting, features a series of five horror shorts tied together by a sixth wraparound short that ties them all together. It features different directors for each segment, (five individual directors and one directing team) which makes for an interesting bit of diversity throughout the film.
** SPOILERS! **
It's no secret that I love the found footage niche of the horror genre. I'm also a big fan of anthologies, at least in theory (Creepshow delivered while The ABCs of Death, well, didn't), so I thought this would be a home run. It was a great idea, and I think it was decently done, but the shorts varied a bit too much in quality (I only liked two of the six), while the wraparound itself was mediocre.
Tape 56 — the short that it continually returns to — was directed by Adam Wingard (You're Next, Blair Witch). It's a decently interesting story to tie the shorts together but just didn't do much for me.
Amateur Night, directed by David Bruckner (The Signal), was a bit too obnoxious for me to enjoy. I know the story centers around three seeming frat boys out for a night of partying (and amateur porn making), but the drunken WOOing and cackling gets old really quick. It makes it pretty satisfying when Lily — the mysterious, wide-eyed woman they bring back to the hotel — literally rips off the incessant laugher's genitals. While they did a decent job making her a bit terrifying — I actually liked when she shows her face sort of split in the middle — the only real highlight for me was when she carried Clint off into the night with her talons dug into him, which was oddly convincing.
Second Honeymoon, directed by Ti West (The Innkeepers, The Sacrament), was maybe my favorite of the bunch. They were the most natural actors and the premise, while not wild or supernatural, was pretty great. Also, after watching Sam try to convince Stephanie — repeatedly and uncomfortably — to take her clothes off while on camera, I was pretty happy when he was killed off. The gurgling and struggling to breathe was surprisingly convincing, and it was a nice twist to have Stephanie run off with a woman.
Tuesday the 17th, directed by Glenn McQuaid, was one of the weakest, in my opinion. It went with the overplayed storyline of 20-somethings deep in the woods and, while the killer being unable to be captured on video was mildly interesting, the weak acting ruined it for me.
The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger, directed by Joe Swanberg (who actually starred in Second Honeymoon), had a decently interesting premise, but was somewhat painful to watch. It was neat to go into it thinking that it was your typical haunted house situation but then find out it went deeper into aliens- using-her-as-an-incubator territory. But still it relied too much on cheap jump scares than anything else.
10/31/98, directed by Radio Silence (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, and Chad Villella, who also all — aside from Justin — acted in the film), was my second favorite. I thought it could have been overplayed to have the story take place on Halloween but it felt fun, especially since so many creepy moments got laughed off due to their belief that they were in an elaborate, but fake, haunted house. When they realize what is going on — or at least that it isn't staged after all — the special effects come on a bit too heavy-handed (though, no pun intended, I thought the hands coming out of the walls was particularly creepy). It uses some of the classic White Lady folklore with the girl leading them by car to the train tracks and then abandoning them right before their death. Maybe not the most brilliant short film to ever exist but I liked it.
A bit disjointed overall and, again, the quality seems to jump around quite a bit. I wish the stories relied more on writing and acting than jump scares and camera glitches, but it's worth a watch.
Raw (original title: Grave) is French director Julia Ducournau's feature film debut, and DAMN it is good to see a female director rock so hard. It has won several awards at various screenings so far, which comes as no surprise to me. It is just barely over the line into the horror genre, but the scenes and images that do qualify have a lasting impact.
The movie focuses primarily on Justine (Garance Marillier in what is her own feature film debut, amazingly) as she navigates the rather terrifying waters of starting veterinary school at her parents' alma mater and alongside her free-willed sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf). During an unusually sinister hazing ritual, Justine — a lifelong vegetarian — is forced to eat raw meat, and finds she likes it more than she expected
** SPOILERS! **
What struck me initially — and throughout the entire film — was how different of a mood there was surrounding Justine's starting at school. There is usually such an air of excitement, nervous anticipation, and downright electricity when movie characters are shown going off to school but there is immediately a feeling of dread and sort of half-hearted resistance. There's no doubt that while Justine is obviously intelligent and compassionate, veterinary school — or at least *this* veterinary school — was not her first choice. The "elders" are cruelly juvenile in their displays of asserting their dominance and it makes for an unpredictable and volatile experience, not knowing when they will have another unreasonable request.
The cinematography — done by Ruben Impens — is impressive from the get-go. The shots are fresh and creative, unapologetically both raw and genuine, stripped down at times but rich in symbolism, color placement/contrast, and excellent lighting.
Speaking of symbolism, Ducournau does a masterful job at conveying Justine's sexual and self-awakening with the use of some primal yet honest imagery. She spends the first chunk of the movie cautiously bumbling through life, avoiding confrontation, dodging attention, and being afraid to stand up for her own personal values even as they're violated at the urging of her own sister. But after she tastes her first bit of raw flesh, she is slowly but intensely transformed. The scene of her covertly gnawing on a raw chicken breast from her room's mini fridge won't stick with me nearly as long as her rhythmically swaying and girating in front of the mirror, seemingly aware of her own power for the first time, sneering and smearing hot pink lipstick across her mouth.
The gore is stomach-churning but well-placed. The film maintains this eerie hypnotism throughout — reminiscent, in a way, of David Lynch's work. There are many moments where your gut instinct is to turn your head but something deeper pulls at your attention.
It crescendos into several fantastic twists at the end, which I won't ruin but suffice it to say that I loved the combination of repulsion and reuniting, the brutal and unhindered show of humanity's — and woman's — transformation.
A grisly, heartbreaking, slow burn of a film highly recommended.