Tag Archives: Horror

The Stand (2021)

[3 stars]

Timing is everything in entertainment and The Stand, well, it couldn’t have picked a worse time. Despite the long anticipation, and the desire to see this epic tale told with the breadth it deserves, watching a story of a pandemic (even if it is just a McGuffin) doesn’t quite ring right at the moment.

But timing isn’t its only issue. The show suffers from all that was good in the book and all that was bad. Some of the casting works nicely, like Amber Heard’s (Aquaman) Nadine, Odessa Young’s (Shirley) Frannie, and even James Marsden’s (Sonic the Hedgehog) Stu. Other characters like Owen Teague’s (It: Chapter Two) Harold Lauder, and Nat Wolff’s (Admission) Lloyd, aren’t credible…and, in fact, Lauder isn’t even afforded some of his evolutions from the book despite the available time in the series.

Other changes to the story, like making Flagg the actual devil and Mother Abigail potentially an angel (though really more of a prophet) removes too much of the interesting aspects and struggles. Part of the real suspense in the book is that people have to choose (including Flagg and Abigail). That Flagg actually has a supernatural hand in causing the pandemic is just so frigging cheap a choice and shows no imagination on the part of the writers. It’s too easy and lets people off the hook. I do admit that Alexander Skarsgard (The Hummingbird Project) is a near-perfect choice for Flagg. Whoopie Goldberg is a bit less perfect as Abigail, but that felt more like the writing than her efforts.

There are also some nice smaller appearances that work nicely. Natalie Martinez (Self/less) gets to have a nice arc. And Brad William Henke (Bright) delivers within the limitations of Tom’s boundaries nicely. Even Ezra Miller’s (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) Trashcan man, for all its outlandishness, works for the need and the part. But Nadine’s story gets rushed at the end.  And the Vegas crew, generally, is just so over the top as to be entirely ridiculous. You never wonder about the outcome. Only the Colorado side feels real and sustainable (which has its own commentary and point eventually).

When the book came out 40+ years ago, it was something really new. That just isn’t the case anymore. And, worse, it feels culturally old. Despite having been updated in time the characters and situations haven’t been updated for a 2020 sensibility in politics, identities, nor culturally. That gap is squarely on the writer’s and directors. While a lot of the plot is sadly timeless, how we deal with one another has changed and the rhythm and language just feels off.

Ultimately, I wish the writers had been willing to really rework the story without losing its main premise and tension. Good vs. Evil doesn’t have to be extremes. In fact, some of the biggest impacts on both sides are often small gestures or choices that ripple out. Sure, we want it to build to a great crescendo, but the series even pulled that moment from us in an odd throwaway, supernatural event that doesn’t even really fit with the rest of the tale. In fact, the choice utterly cheapened all the efforts of the people involved because, ultimately, they didn’t matter. I do like that they had a coda episode that shows that stories just continue, that they don’t end just because of a plot milestone. Using it to create a second climax, another Stand, was clever. However, again, it cheapened everyone else’s choices and lives by forcing the God/Devil fight directly into it all rather than done at a distance. Deus ex machina is not a satisfying solution for a 9 part series, even if it can be used as a point in shorter fare.

Despite some good performances, incredible scope, and solid production values, this version of The Stand still isn’t the one we deserved after so long. Much like Dune, it struggles to find an artist who can breathe life into its rich and complicated world without making it feel like a farce.

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Zombeavers

[2 stars]

I’m sorry, I just had to. I had to! And now I have so you don’t have to.

Don’t get me wrong, in the proper altered state of mind, it would probably entertain the right viewer (likely Millennial or younger). But it’s no Shaun of the Dead, though it is in the same vein. It’s self-aware and unapologetic. But there are no really sympathetic characters and the shy 75 minutes wraps up in a rather unsatisfying, if fair, way (given the script). I will grant the cast and crew that they really just went for it without apology.

I had been hoping for something a bit more Piranah (or even the original version). You know, the so-bad-it’s-good sort of fare. But this is more broad horror comedy. If you need that on this subject, check out Anna and the Apocalypse or Cockneys vs Zombies or, if you want something more polished, Zombieland.

But seriously, just don’t.

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Books of Blood (2020)

[3.25 stars]

Horror is a tricky beast. Most horror focuses on those things that terrified us as children, the stuff that goes bump in the night, the eyes in the dark, that kind of stuff. Most writers create their stories with that kind of scare in mind; Stephen King being the top of the bunch there. But Clive Barker always focused on the adolescent and adult kinds of horror. Not just the fear, but also the sense of betrayal or loneliness or failure or even the pain of just being in the world, and manifestations of those and similar fears. This is part of what set his stories apart, like Imajica or, in this case, his woven collection of tales in Books of Blood.

This incarnation of the book (there was an earlier, less effective, movie) is wonderfully creepy and deeply disturbing, even if some of it feels familiar. And the three storylines are knit together in some very clever ways.

The movie is driven primarily by Britt Robinson (A Dog’s Purpose) and Anna Friel (The Look of Love), who each anchor different storylines. Their controlled performances add to the creep factor and the humanity. There are several other roles, but it’s Freda Foh Shen (Ad Astra) and Nicholas Campbell (Coroner) in Robinson’s tale and Rafi Gavron (Catch-22) in Friel who stand out…each for different reasons.

I have to admit I was surprised the movie was directed and co-written by  Brannon Braga (The Orville), who doesn’t typically delve into that level of darkness. Finding a horror movie in this vein isn’t easy. It isn’t devoid of the scares or guts or terror, but it is filled with a level of believability and sick fascination that makes for truly great horror. Even, in this case, a horror that is worth seeing more than once. If you like the genre and want to see something a bit different and definitely on its game, make time for it.

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Helstrom

[3 stars]

Hulu’s latest Marvel adaptation is quite the dark ride. A cross between Constantine and Legion, it’s a psychological and (literal) hell-ride for a pair of sibs battling their past and fighting for their future.

The pacing is a bit slow, but the intensity remains high. So does the hyperbole. Subtle writing this isn’t, nor does it have many surprises. There are a few, however, and they are big ones.

While Tom Austen (The Royals) and Sydney Lemmon (Velvet Buzzsaw) are the center of the show, it’s really more carried by the side characters. Elizabeth Marvel (Manifest), Robert Wisdom (Motherless Brooklyn), and Alain Uy (The Passage) all have better lines and more interesting challenges, whereas the main characters seem somewhat hemmed in by the genre. I will grant that Lemmon has a nice arc while Austen is just relentlessly earnest.

As a series Helstrom has more promise than delivery, but there is definitely promise and I’d like to see where they go next and if they can raise the bar. Here’s hoping for a second season and a bit more rigor.

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Truth Seekers

[3 stars]

Nick Frost (Slaughterhouse Rulez) and Simon Pegg (Inheritance) have a genius for making the absurd not just palatable, but also relatable. Whether it’s the insanity of Shaun of the Dead or the intense silliness of Hot Fuzz, they find the humanity and let you connect with it.

Truth Seekers is right in line with their approach and sense of humor. Frost’s wifi serviceman, moonlighting as a ghost hunter across the English countryside, gets an unexpected partner with unpredictable abilities and a real mystery to tackle. It’s funny between the jumps, and clever in its construction. Even the rough edges of the acting and production are as conscious as the crisp horror they inject at regular intervals.

Frost’s associates Samson Kayo and Emma D’Arcy make an odd trio, but play off one another well. Kayo’s off-hand delivery is particularly amusing. And supporting the story and the ghost hunters from the sidelines, Susan Wokoma (Enola Holmes) and Malcolm McDowell (Bombshell) make for one of the oddest comedy duos ever put together. And, yet again, it works. Both the material and the talent all come together in unexpected and entertaining ways. Surprise guests willing to go odd places, like Kelly MacDonald (Puzzle), add to the fun as well.

Truth Seekers isn’t going to make your best-ever list. But this initial series pulls together nicely for a fun ride and with possibilities to come. And at 22 minutes a pop, it’s a nice bite-size treat for your evenings. It may even stand up to rewatching for many folks as it’s full of reveals as it rushes towards its end while winding all the threads into whole cloth.

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The Third Day

[? stars]

Jude Law (The Rhythm Section) is the centerpiece of this latest riff on Wickerman. Only a few months back we had the stylish Midsommar that tread similar ground, so I did have to wonder if a 6 part series was really necessary right now.

Honestly, it’s all a bit boring because you know going in quite a bit of what has to happen. I can guess at the ending as well, but can’t be entirely sure of the route and resolution. However, I can’t say I want to watch the whole thing to find out. It just isn’t that gripping…in fact, it’s more frustrating.

The characters are obviously lying all the time. And even with the wonderful acting chops of Emily Watson (Some Girl(s)) and Paddy Considine (Blitz) along with Katherine Waterston (The Current War), you can’t build in suspense where there is none. Because of the genre, you also have no investment in the characters since you know they’re façades.

In short, I gave up. Because of that, I won’t rate it, that wouldn’t be fair. Should better reviews come out, or trusted sources direct me, I’ll return and update this post. But for now, it’s a show that missed its time and need. A shame give the talent and production level, but there it is.

Inheritance (2020)

[2.5 stars]

There is only one reason to see this rather predictable, if nicely tense, movie…and that’s Simon Pegg (Slaughterhouse Rulez). His complete transformation and performance is really quite amazing.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast isn’t quite so engaging. Lily Collins (Tolkien) is completely miscast as a highly respected and tough NYC DA. She just doesn’t have that gravitas…and her reactions through much of the story are, well, not from a woman who should be more  prepossessed. Chace Crawford (The Boys) is fine, but sadly typecast in his role; there are no surprises there.

And then there’s the story. To be honest, as director Vaughn Stein’s follow-up to his more stylish and satisfying Terminal, I was rather disappointed. His handling of the script is fine, but he should have pushed for something beyond the obvious. There was an opportunity for a more interesting conclusion that was completely missed. By taking it just one more step to complete Collins’ journey, a bland and obvious ending could have been elevated; but that isn’t what’s on offer.

Certainly, there is some good tension and by-play in this piece, but I can’t really recommend the cost of nearly two hours. However, if you do tune in, Pegg alone may keep you nailed to your seat to stick it out. Just don’t expect revelation at the conclusion, merely an ending.

Fantasy Island (2020)

[3 stars]

It’s easy to forget that Fantasy Island wasn’t all 80’s kitsch and sweetness, it had a dark side. This remake tries to capitalize on that aspect. And, for the most part, it’s successful, even if the logic is stretched and the plot falls apart near the end. But up till then, director and co-writer Jeff Wadlow, along with the rest of his previous Truth or Dare? team (Jillian Jacobs and Chris Roach), is somewhat clever in how he helps it embrace both aspects of the classic show.

Much like the original, this is a collection of stories. In the wide-ranging ensemble, Lucy Hale (Truth or Dare?), Maggie Q (Priest), and Jimmy O. Yang (Space Force) stand out by force of charisma. They’re joined by a number of other good players that bump the plot along, such as Michael Rooker (Brightburn), Portia Doubleday (Mr Robot), and Parisa Fitz-Henley (My Spy). The rest of the cast serve simply to fill out the story; not poorly, just not memorably.

However Michael Peña (Dora and the Lost City of Gold), in the pivotal Mr. Roarke roll, feels utterly wrong. You have to be both pulled to the man and terrified of him. Peña has neither the presence nor the menace necessary.

What I will grant the movie is that it is a movie, not just an overblown TV episode. But while it can stand on its own, I suspect it has much more impact as a retcon of the series. Were it not for the wobble near the end, it would have been much more satisfying. But it’s a pretty big wobble as it tries to wrap it all up. Fortunately, the final moments are a bit more fulfilling. As to whether you should book a trip here…well, that’s up to you.

Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage)

[3 stars]

Sixty years has not dulled the impressive sensibility of this classic French horror. Beautifully filmed and quietly acted, it manages to make a shock movie (for its time) and an existential statement. I mentioned it was French, right?

This doesn’t make it a great movie in 2020, but it was still interesting and fun to watch. Some of the effects are also rather impressive for the time…and some even hold up now. Certainly the mask design is a piece of creepy beauty.

But it’s the bona fides of this film that make it most interesting. It was adapted, in part, by the duo Thomas Narcejac and Pierre Boileau, who had also given us Vertigo and Diabolique. They try for quiet tensions that build to the inevitable finale. They don’t explain everything, but allow you to fill in aspects from your own imagination.

In addition to the writer bones, it is directed by Georges Franju, who is better known for founding the Cinematheque Française with Henri Langlois. While certainly capable behind the camera, his contribution to cinema is certainly more permanently engraved in the industry by that involvement.

It’s also worth noting that Criterion produced a beautiful transfer of the movie. It is clean and crisp with plenty of shadow where intended. Don’t expect to be shocked or surprised by this story, but it will carry you along and, perhaps, surprise you with its approach and delivery. Coming out of the 50s monster era, this is a shift into more contemplative, modern horror.

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Ju-on: Origins

[4 stars]

Japanese horror is a unique and dark corner in the genre. It’s sense of what is evil is very different from Western stories of ghosts and monsters. Evil is a thing that can be attached to places, people, animals, elements…just about anything. It is without conscience and not always with a particular purpose, though it often is brought forth from or echos real-life events.

Ju-on, the movie, was terrifying. Even its American remake was solidly creepy and disturbing. This series makes them both seem tame. It is darker than dark, twisted, and asks the question: where does evil begin (if the title wasn’t enough of a clue).

The series is told with interleaving/overlapping time-periods to lay out the story, ultimately with it all coming together in the final episodes. But it never quite fully defines what is happening and why; not unusual in Japanese horror. It does provide events and suggestions, but there would seem to be a bigger tale to tell, and, perhaps, an as yet unrevealed purpose behind the hauntings. And, yes, though it resolves a good deal of the threads, it left open the story in a way that allows it to continue if it gets renewed. Actually, it kind of demands more episodes to resolve it all. Much of the credit to the creepy goes to the writers. Hiroshi Takahashi worked on some of the Ju-on sequels and Takashige Ichise on Ringu and its sequels. But director Shô Miyake found a great visual language to depict their story, even if the edits and clarity weren’t always the best.

Do not go into this series lightly. I am not a squeamish sort. I enjoy Japanese horror in all its bloody and gooey splendor. But this embraces that and adds a layer of truly uncomfortable imagery and events that left my skin crawling. And yet, I’d be back if they continue it, just to see how they pull it together.

Ju-On: Origins Poster