Tag Archives: Horror

Murder: Mundane and Supernatural

I’ve been picking up a number of series of late, which has cut down on my movie time. Not all are worth mentioning, but a few of the mysteries bubbled to the top. These three are about as different from one another as you can get in the genre, but all sport sharp intelligence and humanity.

Chestnut Man
Ah, those twisted and dark Danes. This is a great ride of a mystery, led by Danica Curcic (Equinox), Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, and David Dencik (Soap). It is a a collection of interesting character studies as well as a complex and layered story that unfolds in its own time. There are some familiar tropes driving the story, but it manages to make something new of all them thanks to the directing. For lovers of Scandinavian mysteries, this is a must.

Post Mortem: Nobody Dies in Skarnes
And even more twisted and dark folks from Norway. Post Mortem is delightfully of its culture with a dark sensibility, and yet also touching. It isn’t really a murder mystery so much as a black comedy, despite how it is setup. Sure, there are mysteries to be solved, but that is framework for the rest of the story to hang on. Kathrine Thorborg Johansen (The Quake) and Elias Holmen Sørensen make for an amusing pair of siblings, each struggling with their own failings and issues, unaware of the challenges each is facing. Their stories, and those of the residents of Skarnes around them, intersect and come together in unexpected and entertaining ways. It isn’t the show I expected when I tuned in, but I had fun and would watch the next series if it comes about.

Only Murders in the Building
All of which sets up the silly dark satire of Steve Martin (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) and Martin Short (Innerspace), with a queue-up from Selena Gomez (The Fundamentals of Caring). The three are the oddest collection of sleuths in a long while, crossing style barriers as well as generational ones in wonderful ways. The story is a little odd and forced at times, but with folks like Nathan Lane (Penny Dreadful: City of Angels) there to help it all along, it is a fun bunch of half-hour episodes to entertain you with a queue up for the next season as well. It is best simply enjoyed rather than too much examined (it just doesn’t stand up to that). But, oh, the characters and the twists are plenty fun.

The Chestnut Man Poster Post Mortem: No One Dies in Skarnes Poster
Only Murders in the Building Poster

Untitled Horror Movie

[2 stars]

The pandemic has gifted us with a slew of found footage/phone footage movies. It was a trend already in motion with movies like Searching, but it had taken a new sort of energy because what else do creators do when not allowed to create in groups? They create in groups virtually. Staged and Language Lessons are probably the best examples of what has come out of that approach so far.

This film, however, is not in their ranks. It is, to be fair, intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but that can’t forgive all its flaws. The issues are really mostly with the script. Or, to be fair, perhaps it is having me as an audience. It just wasn’t funny. It was all very inside-baseball for the entertainment industry, but with a millennial and GenX attitude that I found more annoying than entertaining.

Luke Baines (Shadowhunters) co-wrote with Nick Simon (Truth or Dare?). For a first feature script by Baines it isn’t horrible. Derivative to a large degree, but not horrible. Simon’s hand is visible in the shaping of the material into a genre film. But Baines also had a major role in the movie, playing a pretty, but not very talented, actor. Draw your own conclusions.

The rest of the main cast are similarly aged talent, all with recognizable faces. Darren Barnet (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Timothy Granaderos (13 Reasons Why), Claire Holt (47 Meters Down), Katherine McNamara (The Stand, Shadowhunters), and Emmy Raver-Lampman (Umbrella Academy). While none of the individual performances really rise to the top, the ensemble creates a believable cadre of a sitcom cast stressing their series renewal, and managing to get along only with the utmost effort on all their parts.

The story picks up pace as it goes along, but it doesn’t find the proper end, nor does it really manage to thrill, satisfy, or scare you. It simply is. Honestly, I can see why the crew got together to make the piece. It was clearly fun for them and it was an outlet during a period of isolation and little-to-no work. That journey is somewhat memorialized in the script itself. But that is also part of the issue, at least for me. I could see all the gears, both in the story and surrounding it. It was a project that was best left on the shelf and dragged out at private parties they could enjoy together. It was a game attempt, and no performer irked me such that I wouldn’t watch them again in something else, but this wasn’t really worth my 90 minutes. YMMV.

Untitled Horror Movie Poster

Squid Game

[3 stars]

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are at least aware of Squid Game. It has had even bigger viewership numbers than Bridgerton and has made the news and even a song on SNL. Everything everyone has said is true. It is hyperviolent. It is dark as hell. It is a bizarre lens and commentary on capitalism, life, and society. So no need to go there. I want to talk about what people aren’t mentioning.

To start off, I had spotted the show very early in its release, but the description/warning that pretty much just said that it was “hyperviolent” had me put it off. And then the hype grew and so I gave it a shot. The first episode was numbing and depressing. There were no obvious characters worth investing in, based on their actions. I knew who we were supposed to root for, but frankly couldn’t find a way in to do so. So I paused my return to the Korean spectacle.

And then the hype grew more. I just couldn’t grasp what was causing all the hoopla. So, I went back…and that’s where it all got interesting.

The storytelling in Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Squid Game is odd and non-linear. It starts us at a dark nadir for Lee Jung-jae as our main character. But then, with the second episode, we start getting backstory for him and the other players. None of it forgives their actions, but it provides context. And there are lots of stories to tell in this cast, though Park Hae-soo, Jung Hoyeon, and Oh Yeong-su have some of the more interesting. No one in this story is blameless and they all, essentially, accept the reality that they are where they are thanks to their own actions. But the context allows for some amount of empathy and, ultimately, some devastating moments. Unlike, say, Battle Royale, it definitely pays off with a purpose.

Add to all this the amazing production design and you have a show you can’t seem to look away from…unless of course you can’t handle hyper-violence, in which case what the heck are you doing watching this anyway? Ultimately, the story is allegorical and not a little absurd. It jumps the shark near the climax with the arrival of the VIPs for me, and the ending was neither overly surprising nor satisfying. It simply happened to allow for a second season. And, to be fair, I want to see what they do with it, even if I don’t forgive the character manipulation that brings us there.

This isn’t an easy show. It won’t raise your opinion of humanity. But, in a weird way, it leaves you feeling hopeful and with some faith in the individual. It will also put some questions in the back of your head that will rattle uncomfortably as you contemplate them in private. Should you watch it? Again, see hyperviolence. It is brutal at times. If you can’t deal with that, the answer is a flat: no. If you can tolerate the intensity and blood, yeah, it’s something you should see.

Squid Game Poster

Halloween Kills

[2.5 stars]

Buckets of blood? Check. Surprises and jumps? Close enough. Story? Well…not so much.

David Gordon Green’s second installment of the new Halloween trilogy is not so much a movie as it is a commentary on society and reflections on the franchise going back to 1978. There isn’t even any teen angst or hijinks. It is almost all from the perspective of the survivors (guilty and not) of the previous films. While the previous film capitalized on that and flipped the script in nice ways, this one is simply out of control and can in no way stand on its own.

Perhaps the real issue is that Green knew he had three films. This installment is simply a bridge to the third and (promised) unexpected finale. But if you don’t know the series and haven’t seen the lead-in story, you’d be lost. This movie picks up literally from the moment the last ended. But it has no real purpose. No rich stories to latch onto and care about (it tries, but fails). It is violent as hell on all sides, and that is its biggest mistake.

For the statement that Green wanted to make, Meyers should have had the lowest, or even zero, bodies added to his list. All of the death should have come purely from the chaos he inspired. That would have made a statement. As it is we simply go from death to death, one squishy over-the-top moment to the next. And while I can enjoy a good splatter film, this just didn’t engage me.

I am, without proof, hopeful that next year’s Halloween Ends will justify this middling release. But we’ll have to wait to see. For now, whether you see this now or later is entirely up to you.

Halloween Kills Poster

Nightbooks

[3 stars]

In the best R.L. Stein tradition, Nightbooks delivers a kid-friendly, but not too saccharine, horror tale. The writer/director mix has a lot to do with the success of the story, but it would have fallen flat if it weren’t for the impressive, young cast they found to drive it.

Winslow Fegley and Lidya Jewett both have cred, but watching these two hold up a whole film was impressive. Even when put up against Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones), they hold their own nicely.

The story is somewhat episodic in structure, but co-writers and collaborators Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (who brought to screen Five Feet Apart and The Curse of La Lorona) were a solid choice to play on the line between YA and horror. And director David Yarovesky (Brightburn) had a suitably tongue-in-cheek approach to the tale.

Add to the flavoring that the production was stewarded by Rami and Tappert (the creators of the Evil Dead trilogy, not to mention Hercules and Xena) and you can understand why there is also a dark comic edge to it all. The not-so-subtle Lost Boys pokes are a riot as well.

This is pure escapism in a wonderfully digestible way. You may get ahead of things, you may not, but you’ll laugh a little and certainly be surprised at how dangerous things can get. The production is also visually rich with lots of wonderful detail…Ritter probably did the role just for the outrageous costumes she got to wear. And, should you like it, know they followed tradition by leaving it open for a sequel.

Nightbooks Poster

Level 16

[3 stars]

Danishka Esterhazy (SurrealEstate) imparts a nicely dark sensibility into this suspense/horror with her directing and writing. It isn’t a story that really pays off believably by the end, but the trip to the end is taut and suitably creepy.

What really sells the story, such as it is, is a couple of the performances. Katie Douglas (Defiance) is the undisputed center of the story, along with Celina Martin helping to move it along. The two young women have great presence and nicely leveled deliveries. Peter Outerbridge (Code 8) also helps ground the pervading weight of the situation, even if his placement is predictable and self-conscious.

But some of the production is also over-the-top. For instance Sara Canning’s (Nancy Drew) Jackboot fetish styling is a bit much. And the mixed culture of the real bosses feels unlikely.

Ultimately, this is a silly sort of fun…if one can look at a story like this and the abuse of young women in that light; it is a horror film after all. Unlike many others of the genre, it doesn’t really deliver a message, only a creepy disgust of the situation. Part of that is that the science and logic are a little ridiculous. But part of it is also the intentional distancing of the characters and locality from its primary audience geographically. It makes it hard to connect with the situation.

Suffice to say this is a rainy afternoon flick, not one that fills a night in a satisfying way. And that’s OK. It was certainly interesting to see Douglas’ and Martin’s turns; I’d like to see what more than can do. Even Esterhazy impressed me with her ability to set a mood both in this and her television work. So not a total loss. Your call on whether you spend time with it.

SurrealEstate

[3 stars]

If you’d passed me a description of this show (which is essentially Ghostbusters meets any of a dozen house-flippers shows) I’d have laughed it off as a joke. As it turns out, George Olson’s creation for SyFy actually has some solid legs. It isn’t perfect, but there are interesting characters, some longer arcs, and snappy writing.

Like most good shows, a lot of the success comes down to the chemistry of the actors. From the outset, the cast feels like they belong together. And even when Sarah Levy (Schitt’s Creek) joins them in the first episode, providing us a way into their world, she fits in with the energy and style perfectly.

The stories are often rushed, but rarely entirely straight-forward. Tim Rozon (Wynonna Earp), at the agency’s helm, manages a massive transformation from his Schitt’s Creek days. But, more importantly, he makes sullen and broken work. He carries a real sense of history with him about his life and his agency.  And that agency is filled out with a bevy of odd misfits. From Savannah Basley (Wynonna Earp) on the front desk to Maurice Dean Wint (Hedvig and the Angry Inch, Cube) and Adam Korson (Female Brain) working the tech and research. Each carrying their own baggage. With Tennille Read (and yes, she also did Schitt’s) providing an ongoing relationship and anchor for Rozon, the gang tackle (house)monsters-of-the-week that all add up to a larger truth.

You may have noticed some crossover in background in the cast (also true on the writing and directing). I’d love to find out who brought who in from where at some point, but it definitely illustrates the size of the Canadian acting community.

You may have passed on this show initially based on its odd description. If you have, go back to it. It has humor and horror, and, most importantly, characters worth investing in. Hopefully they can secure and pull off a second series, but that decision hasn’t been made yet.

SurrealEstate Poster

A Nightmare Wakes

[2.75 stars]

The reason to see this first feature by writer/director Nora Unkel is not the movie itself. The story, while closer to history than the typical apocryphal retelling of it in many movies and even a recent Doctor Who, ends up as a a tortured metaphor for the birthing of the story. It isn’t bad or uninventive, but it just isn’t as engaging as the myth, and isn’t accurate enough to serve as revelatory. And, worse, it weakens Shelley as a writer, a person, and as a woman.

However, what Unkel does show us is what she might be capable of with better equipment and script. The movie is beautifully filmed, edited, and framed. It is also relatively well acted, particularly by Alix Wilton Regan (The Wife) who has to navigate a huge range of emotion and mixed reality.

For a peek at a director and what may be to come, check this story out. While it is no more accurate than many of the previous tales (especially at the end) it attempts to present a more honest view of the creative process and relationships that gave rise to one of the most enduring tales ever put to bound paper. And if the movie should fail to excite, appreciate it simply for the potential it presents.

A Nightmare Wakes Poster

Brand New Cherry Flavor

[3 stars]

It’s hard to turn away from this unexpectedly magical, dark, and twisted Hollywood-meta horror ride. It not only echoes so much of what has come before (and current affairs), but builds its own mythos and little corner of hell. And Rosa Salazar (Alita: Battle Angel) and Catherine Keener (Incredibles 2) are wonderfully matched as they share and spar.

It’s also easy to see why both of these women took on their roles. Salazar gets to grow up and command the screen. Keener (Incredibles 2) took the challenge of trying to make the truly weird and fantastical into something accessible and believable. And she rides that line beautifully.

There are a few men playing in their world. Jeff Ward (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as a naif pulled into the maelstrom and Eric Lange (Wind River) as the catalyst and Weinstein stand-in. But one of the more unexpected, though his role is rather small, was Manny Jacinto (The Good Place, Nine Perfect Strangers). Jacinto proves again what a chameleon he is; every role his sense of age, even of height, seem malleable.

If you like the weird and dark, The ride of Cherry Flavor is worth every minute you get to spend with it. It’s sense of dread and magic, power and control as it all shifts and is explained is compelling. The ending…well, let’s just say they wimped out. Yes, it sort of completes, but they left it wide open for a sequel. Honestly, I would have preferred a solid ending. But that is only the last few minutes of an 8 episode dark epic that grabbed me and pulled me along, even against my will at times. It isn’t for everyone, but it is very well crafted and wonderfully acted.

Brand New Cherry Flavor Poster

The Swarm (La Nuée)

[3 stars]

I grew up on creature features. They’re wonderful escapes. Utterly predictable. Silly and fun. Of course this one is French, and the French like to put their own spin on things, whether it’s a zombie story like Les Revenants or a scifi oddness like Ad Vitam or The Last Wave, the stories tend to focus more on the people and the society rather than the monsters. And this is no different. Riffing literally off the idea of putting your blood and sweat into the land as a farmer, The Swarm is a creature feature with a family twist.

And that family is pretty standard. A struggling widow, Suliane Brahim, is trying to support her children on a floundering farm. Her angsty teenager, Marie Narbonne, hates every minute of it and the attacks of bullies who make fun of their “livestock”. And a family friend, Sofian Khammes, provides support, sometimes even when it isn’t asked for.

It’s the dynamic of these three that really drives the story. The small steps that lead to huge consequences each come out of a desire to hold the family together or to force a change in circumstances. And this is where it departs the typical creature feature. While there are dramatic leaps, there aren’t driven by greed or hubris or misplaced love or desire for power. They are all driven by a quiet desperation to succeed and, by succeeding, holding the family together.

Ultimately, the ending rushes upon you in this story. Events you’ve been waiting for occur and the whole thing cascades…but not exactly as you’d expect and it doesn’t quite wrap up as you think. But if you remember it is primarily about family, it’s fair and relatively satisfying emotionally, if not entirely complete plot-wise.

If you’re looking for lots of blood and guts and big monsters and scares, this isn’t the film for you. If you want a more fair approach to how things can go horribly wrong while you try to make things completely right, this may be your story. I found it engrossing and fun, even if it wasn’t quite what I thought it might be going in. The logic and emotional progressions pulled me along and, even while I kept wanting that big leap to chaos, it was the restraint in delivering those moments that kept me on the hook. It isn’t a brilliant film, but for a group of first time feature writers and director, it is surprisingly well constructed and fun.

The Swarm Poster