Tag Archives: Horror

Truth or Dare?

[3 stars]

I do love me a silly horror film, especially when it is done well. Happy Death Day comes to mind as a recent one, though that was more purposefully funny. The game of truth or dare is, by definition, a consensual, personal moral dilemma enforced only by peer pressure. Make that enforcement absolute, by adding a demon to the mix, and you have the makings of an interesting problem.

Generally, the story here is your typical teen slasher film. It isn’t as self-aware as the plot in Scream, but it isn’t as numbly foolish as some of the original Halloween or Friday the 13th gangs either. There are reasonable motivations for stupid actions in most cases and director Jeff Wadlow (Kick-Ass 2) managed to drive the story forward nicely.

Ultimately, however, I never really cared about the characters. Not even Hayden Szeto (Edge of Seventeen), who is one of the few standouts in the cast of your basic gang of college age teens; but he stood out by virtue of being rather separate from them. Normally that emotional distance wouldn’t really matter as much in a movie like this, but in this case it was necessary, taking some steam out of the finale. In order to really buy into the final choices, you have understand the relationships and I can’t say I bought all of them. In particular was the core Lucy Hale (Life Sentence) and Violette Beane (The Flash) friendship. While there was good work setting up their strained interaction, I never saw the deep devotion they had for one another, only a sort of High School coasting based on proximity and habit.

If you’re looking for inventive deaths and some reasonably fun ideas and writing, you could do worse. It isn’t the best horror to come out, but it certainly wasn’t the worst and did fill its intended need while still managing a few good surprises.

Blumhouse

Backtrack

[3.5 stars]

Backtrack will feel very familiar when it begins. In fact, you’ll likely be thinking, “I’ve seen this all before…I know what’s going on.” And, to a degree, you’d be right. However writer/director Micheal Petroni (Till Human Voices Wake Us) manages to subvert and co-opt the situation and take it somewhere more interesting.

Adrien Brody (The Grand Budapest Hotel) brings all his vulnerable and scruffy best to his distraught and mildly unhinged psychologist. He’s helped along his journey nicely by Sam Neill (Mindgamers) and Robin McLeavy (Hell On Wheels). But it is George Shevtsov’s (Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries) quiet energy as his estranged father that adds the last bit of necessary tension to pull the whole story together.

This bit of suspense/horror doesn’t break new ground, but it does navigate it all very well. And at 90 tight minutes, it will keep you focused, interested, and never let you get too far ahead of it all. It also has some very nice and creepy scares to spike your adrenaline. When you’re looking for a clever horror distraction, this is a good choice for your popcorn evening.

Backtrack

Kiss & Spell (Yeu Di, Dung So!)

[3 stars]

This Vietnamese rom-com cum horror is an amusing and touching escape for an evening. A remake, or seriously inspired by, the Korean movie Spellbound, it follows a magician and his muse as they both struggle with finding out what actually makes them happy…with a bit of the supernatural thrown in along the lines of My Left Eye Sees Ghosts.

The comedy is broad at times, but it is well-contained and not nearly as over-the-top as you might fear. Even the romantic bits remain very sweet, but never melodramatic. Thanks to the late writer/director Stephane Gauger, it balances rather well and never wanes in energy despite its two hour length. He managed to walk the line of Far East and American comedy nicely, keeping it accessible to both audiences. Even the horror bits, which lean more toward Japanese horror influence, aren’t so much scary as pointed for the tale.

Gauger had a short but impactful career. He came out of the gate strong when he shifted to the director’s chair and gathered a number of awards quickly. He clearly had a career ahead him and it is a damn shame we’ll never see what it could have been. In the meantime, he left us with a range of films worth spending some time with…this one included.

 

Hereditary

[3.5 stars]

Ari Aster’s first major script and directing gig betrays a love of intelligent, suspenseful horror from the 70s. There is an air of Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man, and even a bit of The Omen and the (much older) Cat People and the more recent Get Out. It is in the tension he creates and the way he drives the story by raising questions around what’s really happening that echoes these earlier classics. He certainly did himself no harm with the cast he gathered either.

Toni Collette (Please Stand By) delivers a shattering performance as the matriarch of a broken family. Gabriel Byrne (Carrie Pilby) supports her as her husband with immense restraint and love, but with diminishing capacity as the story unfolds. And, as the children, Alex Wolff (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) and first-timer Milly Shapiro turn in wonderfully creepy and sad performances that will break your heart before tearing it from your chest. As an added bonus, Ann Dowd (American Animals) gets to play a pivotal role and appear on multiple screens in different releases this season.

Hereditary is not an easy movie, either to watch or to define. Half the film I was wondering what I was watching, but was utterly riveted by the performances and the filmmaking. The end felt a bit forced and obvious, but the ride getting there was so solid I’ll give Aster a pass on his ultimate choices. The film gave everyone in its ensemble moments to shine, and made its audience gasp many more times than once. If you are looking for dark, creepy, and something just a bit different, you will want to see this on the big screen, in the dark, with others.

Hereditary

Flight 7500

[2.5 stars]

Four years ago, writer/director Takashi Shimizu (Ju-on, The Grudge) decided to tackle a horror tale in the air. I was intrigued, but it would be years before it would make it to any screen due to delayed releases, cancelled distribution, and other issues I’ve yet to discover (though the loss of Malaysia Flight 370 probably didn’t help his timing). The truth is that this is only a middling movie with a kinda fun idea crammed into less than 90 minutes. Its plot is a bit confused and its decisions more than a little silly and forced at times, enough to beggar credibility.

The structure of this story is familiar to any viewing audiences since Airport. To be fair, even Agatha Christie used the trope of setting up a bunch of interesting characters into a confined space (usually a remote house) and then letting events unwind. That said, Shimizu manages to create a certain amount of sympathy and tension with the story lines he takes time to set up before it all starts to go wrong.

Heading the cast are some recognizable faces (more so four years ago, admittedly). In particular are Leslie Bibb (Iron Man 2), Ryan Kwanten (True Blood), and Jamie Chung (Rudderless) who all get some nice moments, though far from fully fledged stories. You’ll spot other faces as well, but as much as this is an ensemble, the stories just aren’t rich enough to grab you.

If you were hoping for something as nightmare worthy as Ju-on, or its English remake in The Grudge, you can forget it. This just isn’t of the same caliber or imagination. I don’t know if that is because it was too Westernized in its approach or simply just a bit of a dud, which all filmmakers have eventually. It isn’t an unwatchable flick with a bowl of popcorn, but I’d put it way down your list for a day when you can’t find anything else.

Tragedy Girls

[ 3 stars]

A bit like Heathers gone even a little bit madder, with a touch of Final Girls and any CW show thrown in. Brianna Hildebrand (Deadpool 2) and Alexandra Shipp (Love, Simon) really take the screen and shake it by the neck with confidence in this very dark comedy; this is their film. I can’t say you are cheering them on through their story, but you do watch with a certain amount of dark glee as they exercise and improve their skills.

The duo are helped along by a few familiar faces and many new ones. Chief among the known supporting cast are Kevin Durand (The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones) and Jack Quaid (Rampage). Durand gets to have a bit of fun, though it isn’t much of a stretch for him. And Quaid gives us a perfect boy-next-door against Hildebrand’s brand of psychosis. There are a host of other familiar faces if you’re looking, and they all help the story succeed, but the movie is really focused around them.

Director and co-writer Tyler MacIntyre (Patchwork) slaughters the slasher genre with glee and verve. It isn’t that we haven’t seen similar approaches before, but this one is solid from beginning to end, and probably a bit too raw for a lot of audiences. However, if you like your nearly believable gooey endings with humor, you’ll enjoy the ride of this blood fest. What it has to say about society and current culture, well, that’s a discussion for another day, but certainly one worth having. But for an evening of evil popcorn munching, this is a fun and well-done choice.

Tragedy Girls

Thelma

[3 stars]

Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombs) brought his award-winning ability directing and co-writing (with constant collaborator Eskil Vogt) this intense and suspenseful tale. It isn’t an easily defined story, but Eili Harboe (The Wave) owns the title role with wonderful subtlety and angst.

The result, as close as I can come, is a coming-of-age horror(ish) tale. You know from the opening scene that something isn’t quite right but it is a paced story that builds the situation from Thelma’s point of view. Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen support Harboe as Thelma’s parents in echos of many other similar stories, but without becoming histrionic.

In fact, that is one of the biggest differences in this riff on a plot you’ll recognize quickly, it is told simply and naturalistically rather than with big moments and effects. It is, above all, a story about Thelma and her becoming an independent adult. It is also doesn’t explain everything or provide simple answers to some of the actions, though it certainly raises questions. The story is as much metaphor as truth.

This isn’t a fast film, but it is gripping and interesting,  performed and constructed with real ability. It was nominated for and won many awards deservedly, but it is more on the art-house end of the spectrum than, say, A Quiet Place, that subverts the genre in a different way. When you want something familiar, but that feels new, check this out.

Thelma

Requiem

[3 stars]

Requiem is an odd, 6-part mystery that is both modern mystery and Gothic horror. From the outset, it is clear that there is some kind of supernatural aspect to the events, but the story unfolds for a long time with that being very much in question and at the periphery. Part of the fun of the story is trying to identify truth and interpretation from fiction and assumption.

Lydia Wilson (Star Trek Beyond) leads the story as a delightfully and frustratingly flawed young woman. For all her strength and focus though, her character drifts into “willful stupid” territory about two thirds into the sequence thanks to writing choices. The Code collaborators, Mrksa and Ayshford,  relied a bit too much on some tropes to push the plot along rather than find more natural ways to have confrontations in their latest delivery.

Wilson’s sidekick, Joel Fry (Game of Thrones), has one of the more challenging paths in this story. Honestly, it never really entirely comes together, but it leaves him hanging in a realistic way. It is clear to us what the motivations are even though the characters rarely broach the subject.

Three other women have nicely complex roles in the series. Two are well recognized faces from many shows and movies; Joanna Scanlan (Electric Dreams) and Claire Rushbrook (Murder: Joint Enterprise) are terrific characters with difficult plots to navigate. The third,  Clare Calbraith, is less known, but is as integral as Wilson in driving the plot forward.

Additional support by James Frecheville (Adore), Brendan Coyle (Me Before You), Sian Reese-Williams (Hinterland) and Darren Evans (Galavant) are all worth mentioning, though far from the entire cast.

Overall, the mystery unfolds nicely and inexorably, but don’t expect all questions to be answered. Most will, and certainly enough will, but the show left itself a way forward and didn’t try to cover all bases. That was fair given that not all answers were or could be known in this part of the story. If you like moody horror and mystery, this is a good mix of the two, and definitely a binge-worthy series that will hook you quickly.

mother!

[2 stars]

Straight up, I am a Darren Aronofsky (Noah) fan and have been since Pi. His narratives are almost always complex and unexpected. Certainly mother! is anything but straightforward. Oddly, though, it isn’t anything new or unexpected either. And it certainly didn’t land with most audiences.

From the outset of the film, you know there is something off. First there is the apparent rollback in time from a disaster. Then there is the odd tension between Jennifer Lawrence (Passengers) and Javier Bardem (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) which just isn’t quite natural. By the time Ed Harris (Geostorm) and Michelle Pfeiffer show up, it is clear this isn’t reality, or isn’t being viewed from clear eyes. Domhnall Gleeson (The Revenant) makes a solid appearance as well to help seal the deal.

If you insist on still seeing the story as reality at any level after that point, it is no wonder that you would hate the film. Honestly, I was willing to go along for the ride, but in a year that included similar themes, like the more recent Phantom Thread, I was looking for something new, not just visually surprising.

Aronofsky has created a very personal vision and tale of his favorite themes: art, love, and religion/spirituality. But ultimately it is about a half hour too long to sustain the story and audience interest. After the first 90 minutes, you want answers, not more outrageous and infuriating situations. I appreciate he wanted to slow burn to the climax, but he asked too much from his audience; he never really fully earns our trust, providing no answers, only mystery and weirdness upon strangeness and offkey oddity. He has always been great skirting the edge of reality, as in Black Swan, to lead to a point. Here, however, the end result here is more the feeling of a surrealist play that is weird for weirdness’ sake alone rather than a cohesive movie. By the way, achieving that play-like presentation and pulling us along inexorably while staying true to the media is no small feat in itself.

I truly admire the craft and acting in the film, even if I disliked the result; it doesn’t feel satisfying in the end. After his last film, I was worried Aronofsky would try to stay more mainstream…I suspect he feared the same and veered way off the track to try and prove he wouldn’t both to audiences and, more importantly, to himself. The result is mother! Now that he’s made his point, I hope he will find his path again. He is a gifted film maker, but this isn’t his best onscreen musing.

Mother!

It (2017)

[4 stars]

So here was a chance for me to eat my words about remakes that I covered when discussing Flatliners. And I am. But as good as it (It) is, and it is, director Andy Muschietti’s (Mama) is eerily similar to the previous classic and equally brilliant adaptation of King’s book by director/co-writer Tommy Lee Wallace. But we’ll get back to that comparison.

First things first, how was this movie? It is full of tension, scares, and compelling relationships despite knowing what’s going to happen nearly every step of the way. In short, the flick is really good and worth your time if you like tense horror. It perfectly captures the logic and sense of the world from a child’s perspective and understands how that terror can dog us into adulthood.

As with the book and the original adaptation, the core of the story is the Loser’s Club of unlikely friends. In this version, it is also a collection of capable young actors: Jaeden Lieberher (Book of Henry), Jeremy Ray Taylor (Geostorm), Sophia Lillis (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things), Chosen Jacobs (Hawaii Five-O), Jack Dylan Grazer (Me, Myself, & I), and Wyatt Oleff (Guardians of the Galaxy). Most of them are getting their first big break in this film, but a few have already shown themselves capable in recent movies and shows.

The adults are all fine, but it is in the structure of the story that they are simply other monsters in our intrepid children’s lives. They may not even really be their parents; they may instead be projections or controlled by the monster beneath the streets. In other words, they aren’t really worth talking about in this chapter of the story as they are instigators rather than full characters.

The nemesis of this suspense horror cannot escape comparisons to the previous adaptation either (fair or not) performed by the creepy and wonderful Tim Curry. Curry’s performance was marked indelibly on the horror pantheon and into the brains of more than one generation of terrified children and adults. Enter Bill Skarsgård (Hemlock Grove), who had to tackle what is one of the Hamlet’s of the horror genre (along with Freddy, Dracula, and a very few others); the part everyone wants to play but which will always be compared to what came before. In this case, only a singular comparison. But Skarsgård holds his own well and adds his own sort of childlike undertone to the creepy clown. Is it a lot like Curry’s approach? Well, yes, and that brings me back to my first statement.

It is a true credit to the clarity and impact of the book that two different productions are so similar in sensibility and character. Each is its own version, but any of the characters and events could comfortably be shifted into one or the other’s venue. The differences are primarily around rating and budget. Because Muschietti was on the big screen with an R rating (which he rightly fought for), it is a bit darker, a tad more violent, and with more realistic language against a larger backdrop of a world than the TV version.

But the characters, despite being written by wildly different kinds of scribes, talk and act almost exactly the same. The 1990 version was co-written by its director. This version was a triumverate of horror and literary writers: Cary Joji Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation), Gary Dauberman (Anabelle: Creation), and new-comer Chase Palmer. But all of the writers respected the source material. One of the more interesting changes in the new version is that it is told in chronological order rather than as revealing flashbacks, which was more like the book. Given it was a theatrical release it made more sense to do it that way, though it will be interesting to see how that plays out in Chapter 2 next year.

In both cases, the power of the original material maintained a long shadow and strong control over the final product. There are variations, particularly around Pennywise’s domain, but they are not materially impactful or distracting, they are simply different views of the same tale, like looking in the side window versus the front. But no matter how you slice it, the room inside is bloody and full of scary shadows.

It (2017)