Tag Archives: Horror

Some Stranger, Mother, Mystery, Things

After a bit of a bingery weekend, I decided to collect up a few Netflix streaming offerings into this single write-up.

Stranger Things (series 3)  (4 stars)
ST has always lived in the gray area between satire and homage, and this series is no different. This latest go-round is more horror than the previous seasons, which lean more into fantasy and science fiction. It is also a bit more in-your-face with the product placement. But the show is done with a great nod and wink to handle all of those aspects and continues to be worthy of our expectations. Unlike earlier series, though, this one took three or four episodes to really get rolling, though it remains interesting throughout. The series is also purposefully structured to pull you along; every episode ends in crisis, thus the binging. The story has a lot of setup that ultimately gets paid off in the rush to the finale. However, up till the halfway point I was getting concerned. But the Duffer Brothers proved again they can riff on nostalgia and not only create something new out of it, but provide great entertainment while doing so. And, of course, despite feeling almost like it was wrapped up, they’ve left a door open to continue into the already announced fourth series.

Murder Mystery (3 stars)
I realize I’m behind the trend on this one, but I have to admit that this silly Gosford Park meets Murder By Death mystery had me chuckling quite a bit. It also had me cringing an equal amount, but that’s no surprise with Adam Sandler (Men, Women, Children) in one of the main leads. Jennifer Aniston (Cake) played heavily into Sandler’s silliness opposite him, but the two never really find a rhythm together…you feel like they could, but every roll comes to a grinding halt and there is no romantic connection between them which leaves the movie sort of empty as a comdey. Even the additions of Luke Evans (Anna) and Gemma Arterton (Their Finest), not to mention Terence Stamp (Crooked House), seriously over-the-top Adeel Akhtar (Victoria & Abdul) and under-played Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Trapped) couldn’t provide a consistent enough background to make it really good. However, it’s a solidly fun distraction, though not much more, for all the efforts in front of and behind the scenes.

I Am Mother (3 stars)
While there are some interesting points made in this story, , it feels like it would have made a better short story than a movie. On the upside, it isn’t overly insulting to its audience, providing open clues from the very top without ever explaining all of it directly. Clara Rugaard is solid in her lead role, even against Hilary Swank’s (What They Had) somewhat odd and explosive survivor. For a first feature effort, Grant Sputore does a credible job with pacing and emotion, but the material would have been better suited to a single hour format in an anthology series like Electric Dreams or Black Mirror rather than its expanded 90 or so minutes. It isn’t a waste of time, by any stretch, but it is somewhat well-worn territory, even with its own twists taken into account.

Happy Death Day 2U

[3 stars]

Happy Death Day was one of the better surprises of last year’s horror offerings. It was full of humor and scares and tackled the Groundhog Day trope with verve. Did we need a follow-up? Probably not, but this one actually managed to build on the original and keep up the entertainment. And, while they force an explanation onto all the craziness of both the first and current film, Christopher Landon managed just enough hand-waving goodness in his writing and directing to let you accept it and move on.

From a character point of view, even more than the first film, this is Jessica Rothe’s (Please Stand By) movie. She doesn’t start the story this time, but she completely takes it over and drowns out all other characters. So much so that the others really don’t matter in the end. This is her journey and resolution. And while they’ve left the door open for a third through a mid-credits tag, my hope is that it was a final joke rather than a heralding of a third film. This vein, fun as it is, is tapped.

Basically, if you liked the first set of loops, you’ll like this set. They are substantially the same stories, but each with a different focus and driver to keep them separate and fresh. And they are both loaded with silly fun tempered with just enough reality to make it work. Definitely a popcorn evening to share with someone of like humor.

Us

[3 stars]

Us is at its best when it’s scaring us, and at its worst when it is trying to explain how and why it is scaring us. Basically, it’s a wonderful bit of creepy horror, but not quite as on point as social commentary as Jordan Peele’s previous Get Out. But, let’s face it, he had a very high bar to meet after that debut.

But Peele aside, this is Lupita Nyong’o’s (Black Panther) film. Period. Even with a fun performance from her Black Panther colleague, Winston Duke (Avengers: Endgame), she dominates the story in every way. Her performance makes this worth seeing regardless of any issues I experienced.

And there are issues. For instance, the plot doesn’t bear up under any kind of scrutiny. Us is much more traditional than Peele’s previous dark horror. Bad stuff happens, carnage occurs, people fight back. There are social overtones, but they are much more subtle and conceptual, requiring Peele’s explanation in a short featurette to get across all the aspects. That isn’t a great sign. The ideas are interesting, but they don’t hold together if you start to ask questions. And that’s the one thing you really don’t want anyone to do when watching your film: have them asking questions and poking holes in your ideas. When that happens, it pulls them out of the moment. A good chunk of the end of the film is explanation–and it just isn’t explanation that makes much sense.

However, for a really suspenseful blood-fest and popcorn spilling film, give Us your time if you haven’t already. It’s a perfectly solid horror pic. Don’t expect the powerful subtlety or outright gut-punches of Get Out, but there is meat on the bones and it is a well executed. Peele has nothing for the big screen currently scheduled, but he continues to show himself as a new and interesting voice in cinema, willing to tackle ideas as well as entertainment. I’m very much looking forward to his upcoming adaptation of Lovecraft Country on HBO. It is a perfect marriage of his ability, interests, and content sensibility.

Brightburn

[3 stars]

Is there anything scarier than a 12-year old going through puberty? How about one with untried superpowers? The result is really more a horror flick than science fiction. Think We Need to Talk About Kevin, if Keven were Kal-El, more than Carrie with a guy.

Jackson A. Dunn’s Brandon Breyer isn’t so much an anti-hero as anti hero. He plays it nicely deadpan, but with enough confusion about  his new “feelings” to make it recognizable. Elizabeth Banks (The Happytime Murders) and David Denman (Puzzle) struggle as his parents to deal with his oncoming adulthood, as every parent does. Their concerns are essentially the same, but the price of failure and miscommunication are just higher. Watching them navigate the situation is as much fun as watching their son begin to come into his own. It makes Brightburn at once a tense trainwreck of a horror film and a darkly funny metaphor for adolescence. And the costuming for Brandon’s alter ego is a wonderful and subtle gift.

Brightburn isn’t exactly drawing in a wide audience. In some ways, it is timely in the superhero glutted days of movies as counterpoint. But we, as a population, flock to superheros when things are bad and we need hope. Is it surprising that during today’s struggles most people want their heroes to be heroes rather than … well, not? Go to this for the evil glee and mayhem that it offers. It isn’t brilliant in script or direction, but it is solid and delivers what it intends without the stupidity on the part of characters that most horror films provide and rely on. Frankly, I had fun with it, even as I found it disturbing as heck.

Tau

[2.5 stars]

Another bit of marginal science fiction that is more horror and misogynistic tripe than it is a good movie. A surprising result given the strong female lead in Maika Monroe (Independence Day: Resurgence). Ed Skrein (Alita: Battle Angel), as her nemesis, is cardboard at best and a mustachio twirling black hat at worst. Even Gary Oldman (The Darkest Hour) as the recently generated AI is without a lot of impact, though he gets a moment or two.

For a first feature as director, Federico D’Alessandro does a reasonable job with what he had, and got a very nice look for the movie. Not a surprise as he has a long history in storyboards and animatics. It is really Noga Landau’s (The Magicians) script that is the big problem. There are moments of thoughtfulness in the action and issues, but mainly it is an excuse to raise mayhem, torture, and revenge. If you’re in that kind of mood, I suppose you could do worse, though you’re better off with something more like Assassination Nation which has all of that and better writing.

What you’ve got here is a rainy night flick that is way better than most of the SyFy offerings, but still not a great movie in and of itself. Enough to distract and, perhaps, maybe consider some ideas (stress on maybe). But this movie isn’t going to win awards or get massively recommended other than for Monroe in skimpy outfits and Skrein in tight clothing. Some nights that may just be enough. Your call.

Velvet Buzzsaw

[3 stars]

If you’re a fan of films like Theater of Blood, Vincent Price and Diana Rigg’s 1973 horror delight, you’ll likely enjoy this latest, admittedly imperfect, Netflix release. It is a wry look at the art world but also quite dark. Not a huge surprise given it is writer/director Dan Gilroy (Roman J. Israeal, Esq), though the tenor of this movie is quite a bit more tongue-in-cheek despite the horror elements.

Gilroy pulled together a talented and committed cast that pivots primarily around his reunited Nightcrawler leads Jake Gyllenhaal (Okja) and Renee Russo (Just Getting Started). The other substantial role is delivered with mixed results by Zawe Ashton (Oasis). She isn’t so much bad as without plumbable depths. Perhaps it was part of the point, but the result diminishes her impact and the impact of the story. Adding to the mix in a series of supporting character roles are Toni Collette (Hearts Beat Loud), John Malkovich (The ABC Murders), Billy Magnussen (Ingrid Goes West), Daveed Diggs (Blindspotting), and Tom Sturridge (Song to Song). Each is a forced extreme, but all are entertaining in their ways.

But if you were hoping for a break-out horror, like Get Out, based on Gilroy’s previous powerful main releases, you’re going to be disappointed. It isn’t horrific enough for the horror fans nor intellectual enough for lovers of satire. This is simply some evil fun with a social eye and a mean desire to slam the more obvious absurdities of the art world. Where it fails is in its lack of clear explanation or point and, ultimately, by not providing anything positive about an industry that Gilroy knows has value…and is even using to send his message. In other words, it is somewhat rudderless with some fun moments and serious talent, but that’s about it. That doesn’t make this flick something to skip, but go in knowing it isn’t what you think it is and probably won’t reach what you hope it is.

Escape Room

[3 stars]

Silly, satisfying popcorn fun, as you’d expect.

Much like Cube and Saw before it, this collection of crazily conceived challenges for the characters offers a lot of dark entertainment, and some nice attempts at making it all believable. As a first feature script for Schut and Melnik, there is a real attempt to create just-believable-enough scenarios and people to drive the well-worn genre and provide some unexpected moments, if not exactly surprises. Adam Robitel’s direction, as only his second feature, likewise shows some nice talent with pacing and finding emotional threads to keep it all going.

The result isn’t perfect, but it is entertaining. Nik Dodani (Atypical), in particular, gets ripped off as a character, never really becoming someone we care about. But Deborah Ann Woll (Daredevil) and
Taylor Russell (Before I Fall) actually get to build quite a bit of backstory and sense of life. Logan Miller (Love, Simon) and Tyler Labine (Voltron: Legendary Defender), aren’t quite as lucky and Jay Ellis (The Game) is really just a parody. These uneven efforts work in this genre, but does make the film a bit less than it might of become.

So, if you’re a fan of these kinds of inventive evil mayhem that may or may not ever really make sense, make an appointment for the Escape Room. If you are hoping for something a bit richer and more complete, like It or some of the other more recent reinventions of horror/suspense, this is going to come up a bit short…primarily for the ending, but also because of the uneven character development.

Nightflyers

[2.5 stars]

Such anticipation and such disappointment. This adaptation of the classic novella by George R. R. Martin ended up as an unhappy cross between Event Horizon and 2001: A Space Odyssey; an embarrassingly and nearly unwatchable tale of space horror trying to be intellectual.

You can tell that the producers knew they were in trouble with this series from the start. In order to hook you, they had to start with the unlikely events near the finale. By doing so they kept you hooked trying to figure out how it happened, even though wading through the absurd plot and actions of the characters would have normally had you switching off the show.

There are some clever ideas amidst the really bad writing. Some are from Martin’s source material and some from the writer’s own expansion of that novella. But clever ideas alone can’t drive a show. You need at least one other element, good dialogue or good characters. Neither materializes despite some considerable talent in the cast and effects on the screen. And, to top it all off, the end of the season is far from a resolution, though I can’t say I’ll be back for a season 2 should it appear.

I wholly support the efforts to start bringing well known writing to the screen, large or small. But the results need to be as crafted as the original source in order to bring it to life.

Nightflyers is middling at best and, in my opinion, not worth 10 hours of your time to navigate.

Bird Box

[3 stars]

If you are a Netflix subscriber, you probably have already seen this movie, which has smashed all kinds of expectations for this kind of release. If it had the same attendance in theaters, it would have been a certified hit. As it is, no one knows quite how to judge the results, but they were impressive nonetheless with 45 million account accesses within the first couple days and moving up from there. But is it worth it?

Horror has seen a Renaissance over the last year or so. Get Out, It, and A Quiet Place, even Suspiria, Halloween, and Hereditary have each staked out different corners of the genre successfully, if not always financially. Bird Box lives happily in the Quiet Place corner of that realm, focused on family survival during an unknown and little understood threat. Its story is somewhat predictable, but as it is told in flashback, and there is a lot you can assume from the start, it is intended that the journey and the coda at the end are what you’re sticking around for. And, of course, the cast.

Who would have seen Sandra Bullock (Ocean’s 8) taking on a lead in a horror movie, let alone a streaming only horror? She brings considerable talent and range to an otherwise standard role. Trevante Rhodes (Predator) provides her a nice foil, though not necessarily much of a performance on his own. But he is part of very unexpected cast list. With additional roles by Sarah Paulson (Carol), John Malkovich (Mile 22), Jacki Weaver (Widows), BD Wong (Jurassic World), Lil Rel Howery (Get Out), and Tom Hollander (Bohemian Rhapsody), you’d be understandably surprised. It certainly signals a strong turning in the streaming game.

Director Susanne Bier (The Night Manager) brought all of her suspense know-how to bear on this story. Even when the adaptation by Eric Heisserer (Extinction, Arrival) isn’t quite to his previous crafting, she helps pull it together with the actors and directorial choices. Ultimately, this is a story about people, not about events, which is what, I’m sure, attracted the cast and Bier to the production.

Depending on your love of the genre, you will like this to differing degrees. As a pure horror, it is only OK. As an examination of the human condition amid calamity it fares better. Purely as a movie, it is entertaining and gripping, but not brilliant. But if you like Bullock, or any of the other cast, it is worth some time and popcorn. For me, the ending was more than a little obvious and forced, but since this really is about the journey, as I’ve said, I’m giving it a break. On the other hand, you might find the journey itself questionable, depending on your interpretation (one interpretation is quite cliche, while another is a bit more broadly acceptable). Most folks will be able to go along for the ride and enjoy it without the over-intellectualizing I found myself unable to escape. Give it a few minutes to see if it hooks you…I’m betting it will for most.

As a side note, this is quite the double punch for Netflix, whose technology setting Black Mirror: Bandersnatch also released this past week.

Cold Skin

[3 stars]

Cold Skin is a quietly intense, sort of Gothic-horror/science fiction story of isolation, surviving, and survivors, not to mention making a swing at defining the meaning of humanity. If that sounds a bit overly layered and burdened, it is, but it somehow all fits.

Ray Stevenson (The Transporter Refueled), David Oakes (The White Queen), and Aura Garrido (Ministry of Time) form an unlikely triumvirate fighting to survive on an Antarctic island with some unusual inhabitants. It is, in its bones, a simple horror tale of the kind you’ve seen before. However, Xavier Gens’ (Hitman) direction takes the script to a different level by helping the actors add flesh and emotion to those bones.

While you enjoy the mayhem and tension of nightly attacks, you also get to explore what drives these characters and what makes them human or not. The answers aren’t always comfortable. There is also a great “making of” featurette on the disc. I didn’t expect to watch it, but it hooked me quickly and actually discussed the movie and its making rather than just marketing what you’d just seen.