Showing posts with label horror. Show all posts
Showing posts with label horror. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Pet Sematary (2019)

GENERAL INFO:
Director: Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer
Studios: Di Bonaventura Pictures, Paramount Pictures
Starring: Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Amy Seimetz, Jeté Laurence
Tagline: Sometimes dead is better; They don't come back the same.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, supernatural thriller, zombie, haunting, family drama, remake, Stephen King
Scare score: B-
Rating: B+/B


Plot overview: After moving from Boston to Maine, Louis Creed (Clarke) and his wife Rachel (Seimetz) are hoping for a more calm way of life so that they can slow things down while raising their two kids. Shortly after settling in, however, the family begins to be plagued by strange events, culminating in the death of their beloved pet cat, Church. The Creeds' new friend and neighbor, Jud Crandall (Lithgow), decides to help with their grieving, so he takes Louis beyond the local pet 'sematary' to a dark and ancient place to bury Church, who comes back home later that night, seemingly alive but fundamentally changed. When disaster strikes the family again shortly thereafter, the temptation to bring the dead back to life proves too strong for Louis, even though he knows that whatever comes back will not be the same as what was lost.

I waited a few weeks to see this movie in theaters, and I ended up having an afternoon showing all to myself. The projectionist even fast forwarded past all the previews so that I could get straight to the movie. Sometimes living in a small town has its perks for Horror Buff.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, but considering his prolific and unmatched impact on horror as we know it, the majority of Stephen King's body of work that was adapted to film fell victim to the era of production, that is to say so many of his books became movies cursed by the production quality of the '80s. I think The Shining is a stunning exception to this, but when you think about movies like Thinner (which is still fun) or especially Graveyard Shift, even Cujo and Christine to a lesser extent, I think it becomes more apparent. Anywho, nothing a remake can't fix... enter Pet Sematary.

The original movie from 1989 was one of the earliest horror movies I was continuously exposed to while growing up, and it has had a very lasting impression on me. It felt like it was always on TV, and some of my earliest memories of horror are from this film. I think one of the images that has scared me most throughout my life, all because of how young I was when I would see it on TV, was that of Rachel's sister and her case of spinal meningitis from hell. That being said, my interest was piqued when I learned that this new version was coming out.

My general thoughts are that this was a fun adaptation but not groundbreaking. It had a lot of familiar elements with some other scattered references to King's mythos (e.g. Derry sign while Rachel is in traffic), but it also made some bold choices to change the plot of the book and the original. Even though Horror Buff feels like a purist so much of the time, I didn't see the harm in freshening up the story with some of these new or altered bits of plot.

I really enjoyed the production quality and I thought the film was pretty lovely to watch, including all that beautiful Maine wilderness. I especially loved the creepy animal masks the local children would wear on their processions into the Pet Sematary when laying a lost loved one down; this was one of those eerie things just believable or fun enough that a small town might do and that would look as terrifying to outsiders like Rachel as it did to us as viewers— but that might be totally normal to locals who had observed the tradition for generations.

*SPOILER ALERT*

I also thought the acting was pretty solid throughout the movie, or at least in lazier scenes that it never got into that awful family drama aspect that we've seen in so many horror movies focused around the family unit. I recognized Clarke's face but I'm not too familiar with his other work; he could have fooled me that he's Australian! I didn't love him in the beginning but he grew on me during the film. Amy Seimetz (The Possession, Alien: Covenant) was given a sort of strange role with Rachel, who really misses out on most of the action. I liked her but I didn't feel especially moved by the re-exploration of her childhood trauma, which I felt she could have acted more strongly. She was great in her final scenes, however. I think one of the smartest plot change decisions this movie made was to kill and reanimate Ellie (Laurence) instead of Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie). I thought the young Laurence has a great look about her and I wonder if we will see more of her, and it felt more natural to utilize a more mature actor—even though she's still a little kid—to play such a crucial role in the movie. I laughed out loud at the early scene when she comments how "cemetery" is spelt wrong on the sign at the pet sematary. ELLIE IS ALL OF US. Especially as her undead version, Laurence brought a lot of morbid fun to the movie— there was something mature about her contemplative nature upon realizing her own deadness and incompatibility with the natural world. I could have done without that demented ballet scene, though.

Pretty much the whole time, I was expecting the infantile Gage to get killed, and as the first movie showed us, there is only so much you can do with a child that young coming back as some demonic zombie. I was even nervous that it would become special effect heavy to carry that all out, given how young Gage was. So as my stomach was all in knots anticipating the inevitable during the birthday party scene, it's fair to say I was really surprised with how that all ended up. Why wouldn't these people have built a giant fence along their property line? Forget the creepy cemetery and ancient Indian burial ground (*yawn*)— that highway was a nightmare! Admittedly, I jumped pretty hard the first time a truck sped by early on in the movie. After that, I really didn't think this movie was too scary. There was some classic suspense, and even just the right amount of gore between the flashback to Zelda's (Alyssa Levine) death, Ellie attacking Jud (Achilles tendon iconic to the original), and that particularly enjoyable early scene when Louis tries to save former college student and future ghost Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed) following an accident. I chuckled during Jud's death scene as we see demon zombie Church licking his little cat lips in anticipation— that was great.

Fun fact: Stephen King was inspired to write this book while working at the University of Maine (much like Louis) after his family cat was killed by a truck on a busy nearby road. He had to bury the cat and explain what had happened to his daughter when he started to wonder, what would happen if the cat could come back, only different?

Otherwise the horror here was kind of odd at times. I think it's almost more that I found myself too busy questioning the logic behind everything that I couldn't focus on what exactly was happening. Why does Victor get to haunt Louis? Especially when there is a special burial site to reanimate the dead, where does a random ghost come into play? Why in the world did Jud ever think that bringing Church back to life would be a good idea, especially given his story about his pet dog and the implications about his late wife? Are the dead simply brought back to life with a grudge, or is this more of a demonic possession happening? While the end of the movie is being considered shocking now, I felt the last couple of minutes were not wholly satisfying and that the movie even ended on a strange note. (Not to mention it breaks my first Cardinal Rule!)

I know the Indian burial ground trope is tired and has received its fair share of due criticism, but I enjoyed this movie's quick references and short sighting of the wendigo, a prevailing piece of Native American folklore that scared me a lot as a kid. I think this movie examines the breakdown of the nuclear family unit, exploring not only death but grief and loss in general. I wonder if there is commentary on the guilt so common in grief, and if that guilt can be extended to America's bloody colonial history. As Jud mentions, perhaps burying Church in the burial ground in the first place started a string of events that would ultimately lead to the Creeds' demise, or maybe the events were totally random. Is there an element of revenge here? Who are the demons returning in the dead's bodies, anyhow? Or am I overthinking it?

Final critique: This wasn't a bad movie, but it wasn't the amazing remake you might anticipate after almost exactly 30 years (the original was released April 21, 1989). Then again, the actual material here is pretty specific, and I don't think there was much more you could have changed without losing the story, or without losing the audience who is first and foremost dedicated to King. Though not a terribly scary movie, the combination of jump scares, brief violence/ gore, and the generally dark mood of the film might mean some people will have to sit this one out. The moral dilemma here is enough to have you thinking about this movie for a while after. How far would you go if you had the power to reverse death? Or is it better to accept that the loved one you lost can never come back, at least not as their original self?

Monday, April 15, 2019

Hostel (2005)

GENERAL INFO:
Director: Eli Roth
Studios: Next Entertainment, Raw Nerve, Lionsgate, Screen Gems
Starring: Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson, Eypór Gu∂jónsson
Tagline: Welcome To Your Worst Nightmare.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, thriller, psychological horror, body horror, torture, drama
Scare score: C+/B-
Rating: B+


Plot overview: Three friends are traveling Europe in search of forgettable girls and unforgettable adventure. When they're promised the best parties and hottest women, they travel farther east on their hunt for hookups. When they arrive to Slovakia, however, they unwillingly wind up in an international scheme where they become the hunted.

Who hasn't seen or heard of Hostel? This was released a year after Saw and in many ways the two films heralded in a new era of body horror and, more specifically, torture porn, which I feel many modern audiences most heavily associate with the horror genre today. Eli Roth made a name for himself several years earlier with the enjoyably bloody Cabin Fever— a movie which perhaps better bridges the gap from early 2000s horror into more body-centric terror. I would argue it's also no coincidence that the teen comedy EuroTrip was released in 2004, because in many ways Hostel is a perverted and nightmarish version of that film, complete with Josh (Richardson) moping over an ex-girlfriend, Amsterdam nightclubs, feisty strangers on a train, and winding up in Bratislava. Tell me that's a coincidence. Which leads me to my next point...

Above all else, Hostel is an exploration of the role of America (and Americans) in a post-9/11 world. The Bush era was a time when American backpackers were not welcome many places, when Americans abroad posed as Canadians to avoid the recently-marred reputation on the world stage. While it exploits some of the stereotypically obtuse nature of American tourists, it also serves as a commentary of American violence when we meet the fantastically creepy Rick Hoffman as the American client later in the film. In general, setting the majority of the film in an impoverished and third-world-looking version of the Slovakian capital of Bratislava drew major backlash from government and audiences in that country, which went on to invite Roth for an all-expenses-paid trip to show him their true beauty and culture. Roth explained that the film was not meant as an insult to the country or its people, but rather to make a point that most Americans wouldn't know Slovakia was a country, or at least that they wouldn't be able to place it on a map. While our main characters are fairly bright, this ignorance and the ensuing loss of innocence are explored in the film.

It's not a coincidence that the victims we see explicitly in the film are American and Japanese, or that German plays a large role, because I feel that this, too, is a commentary on power: Taking citizens of the world's most powerful and industrialized nations and subverting them into victims in a nightmarish pay-per-victim business in what is clearly portrayed as a developing country. Since the Cold War, Eastern Europe has long been viewed in the American imagination as some broken down and eternally foreign place lost in the past. I can see how this film certainly would have perpetuated those feelings. A major moment in the film comes when the formerly cocky and ignorant Paxton (Hernandez) begins speaking in fluent German to his torturer, thus tapping into the masked butcher's humane side and allowing Paxton to buy himself some more time to formulate a plan. To me, this represented the importance of culture and multicultural/ multilingual education as a path to salvation for Americans, who are stereotypically monolingual and ignorant of cultures other than their own state/ city/ family.

I really enjoy this film. I remember the first time I rented it with a friend back in high school and we just sat there half laughing half terrified at what was happening before us. The first half of the movie plays almost as an adult film until we are ushered into a dark transition. I absolutely adore the juxtaposition of these young men looking for sex and speaking poorly of sex workers, only to then find themselves as the meat or merchandise being sold to wealthy international clients. Natalya (Barbara Nedeljáková) explicitly points this out with a great line to Paxton later on: "I get a lot of money for you, and that makes you my bitch." There is something so crucial to the genre about this subversion of independence and agency into total obedience— and then enter the body horror as their physical forms get slowly mutilated. I think that is what differentiates body horror from splatter films: There is a larger focus on the physical mutilation than simply on the bodily fluids to follow. Hostel offers plenty of that as well, and if there was one scene most representative of the movie, it would probably be the infamous bit with the eyeball. Another great sequence is when Paxton is being dragged past the doors of different rooms in the factory (why are the doors open?) and we get brief glimpses into various snapshots of torture. My favorite scene may have been when Paxton is in his torture room and his vomit starts erupting around the ball gag that has just been put into his mouth. So excellent.

Another interesting theme the movie touches on not-so-shyly is that of a gay subtext. I recently listened to the Hostel episode of the usually fun and insightful Horror Queers podcast that brought this back to my attention since I had not seen the movie in years. Going back to American relations, I think another major stereotype/ reality we have is that European men are more "feminine," as we have come to understand that word in Western societies, meaning they are more openly sensual or comfortable with their bodies or in expressing themselves. Óli (Gu∂jónsson) shows off his butt more times than I can count and is openly interested in heterosexual couples copulating, as well as other kinks. Horror movies in the early 2000s are usually ripe with overt homophobia, and Hostel is no different. Our three brochachos are galavanting around Europe looking for "poosay," and it's primarily Josh who becomes a target for Paxton and Óli's homophobic remarks regarding Josh's use of a fanny pack (trendsetter!) or his reluctance to try and sleep with every single girl they encounter. One of the most interesting bits from the film is when the Dutch Businessman (Jan Vlasák) places his hand on Josh's thigh during the train ride, and Josh immediately freaks out. When they meet each other again, Josh tries to atone for his outburst by buying the businessman a drink at a bar, and he reciprocates the man's original gesture by placing his own hand on the man's thigh. This prompts the man to admit that he had to ignore his urges and start a family, but that Josh still has time to do what is right for him. There is really no other way to read this except that the man is admitting he is not heterosexual, but was forced into a heteronormative lifestyle, and that he acknowledges homosexual feelings in Josh and wants the adolescent to follow his own path (AKA telling Josh 'Gay is okay.') Josh seems confused by this exchange, and we don't really see too much more of it because at that point it's already too late for him anyway. While Paxton starts off the film as a pretty unrepentant homophobe, part of his arc is to get more in touch with his feelings as becomes more human and tries to survive his ordeal. The idea of these men tied up and made subservient is one aspect of that, as well as some of the general torture/ BDSM equipment we see in the factory, including the ball gag used on Paxton. At the end of the film, the bathroom kill scene is also heavy on the gay allusions as cruising in bathrooms was historically (and still remains) a way to rendezvous with or meet other men. (We have seen this touched upon in other horror movies, such as the 2007 Halloween remake or even the latest installment from 2018.)

In general, I think the acting is pretty solid in this movie, more so in specific scenes than in general. I do like the hunky Hernandez as our final boy Paxton— bet you didn't see that coming when the movie started. Surviving the ordeal becomes fairly ridiculous, especially when he's an inch away from escape and hears screams coming from inside the factory (how?), triggering him to rescue Kana (Jennifer Lim) as redemption for the little girl he didn't stop from drowning in that minor backstory you might have missed in the first place. Facing the trauma of the moment, it's wild that his brain even allowed him to process that, whereas most of us would be in full-on flight, fight, or freeze. I feel so-so about Derek Richardson as the more empathetic Josh, but he has perhaps the biggest standout moment of the movie when he first comes to in his torture cell. This is our first introduction to the reality of the movie as well, and his realization/ begging for mercy/ suffering is one of the best sequences in the entire film.

Overall, this movie is not very scary. Violence and gore are very separate from actual scares to me, so while they are certainly heavy in those departments, the film itself is more terrifying psychologically in the reality of what is happening with the Elite Hunting organization. That name also cracked me up, what with an ego-boosting suggestion that these butchers were "hunters," when in reality their prey is being handed to them. Maybe some commentary on big game hunting there as well. The first half of the movie is all setting us up for the second half, and there is really very little horror in the beginning at all, which is interesting. A few scenes end up fairly silly, like the most dramatic low-speed hit and run we've ever witnessed (RIP Eastern European accomplices) or that other classic scene on the train platform at the end. (AMAZING blood splatter on random women. LOVE that.) The movie also ends on a really weird note, I was almost surprised that that was it.

I also picked up on some great Shining references throughout the movie, from the presence of the number 237, to the camera angles approaching the factory (similar to approaching the Overlook), even to the string-heavy music in some scenes. That was fun to see throughout. The music, however, is pretty corny, and I think that hurts the scares in otherwise dark scenes. There is a great soundtrack in the beginning of the movie, but by the time the terror kicks in, the score sounds very outdated and overdramatic. Was a bit turned off by that as well.

Final critique: This movie is a wild ride that many audiences are sure to enjoy. This came early on in the years of modern body horror and torture porn, with just a few explicit scenes but plenty of special effects, makeup, props, and bodily fluids to add to the overall feel. If you can't do gore, there is no reason why you should even attempt this movie. Otherwise, it's quirky in its own ways, but mostly a quick and enjoyable watch with plenty of deeper subtexts that helped boost Eli Roth to major fame in the genre.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Evil Dead (2013)

GENERAL INFO:
Director: Fede Álvarez
Studios: Ghost House Pictures, FilmDistrict, TriStar Pictures
Starring: Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci, Jessica Lucas, Elizabeth Blackmore
Tagline: Fear What You Will Become
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, supernatural thriller, psychological thriller, possession, drama, action, gore
Scare score: C-
Rating: B-


Plot overview: Five friends arrive at a secluded cabin in the woods to help Mia (Levy) quit and overcome her withdrawal from heroin. After discovering disturbing animal sacrifices and a mysterious and ancient text in the basement, a demonic force begins to possess and kill the group one by one.

This movie is tricky. Described by the director as a continuation of the original classic, my biggest complaint about this film is that in many ways it feels like another gritty, early 2000s revamp of a horror classic and yet doesn't have any of the bizarre humor that made the original stand out in the first place (although acting and effects are up to par with 2010s horror). For that reason, I feel this movie isn't super memorable. Case in point, I was watching it last night and it wasn't until about halfway through that I realized I'd seen it once or twice before. My bad.

That being said, lots of things about this not-quite-a-remake, 4th installment in the Evil Dead franchise are awesome. It's not for everybody, to be sure, but there is something so unrelenting about this movie—and about the nature of the horror which manifests in it—which keeps hitting you again and again practically from start to finish. The best thing this film does is maintain the gore-heavy nature of the original. Using really fun makeup and special effects—and only very minimal CGI—we are treated to tons of bloody, dirty, sharp, gut-wrenching gore that is pretty similar (if less campy) than the original's. There are also tons of great nods throughout the film, which isn't too surprising given that the producers of the original films were on this project as well (Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and Robert G. Tapert). It's a rehash of the original in many ways, but even Ash's car is still there, the chainsaw of course, and at one point we see a Michigan sweater, like in the original, because Raimi and Tapert both went to Michigan State, Campbell also went to college in Michigan, and all three were born in the Great Lakes State. I love when creators pay homage to their own upbringings, and Michigan specifically seems to be hot in recent years, such as in It Follows or in another Fede Álvarez-directed thriller (also starring Levy), 2016's excellent Don't Breathe.

I didn't think this new take on The Evil Dead was scary whatsoever, and I was going to give it a lower Scare Score, but then I thought more specifically about some of the action-packed scenes in this movie that, while not scary in your typical sense, were kind of horrifying in their brutality. Like the first film, the horror-action is pretty relentless once the incantation is read from the Naturom Demonto, this installment's version of Lovecraft's infamous Necronomicon. Unfortunately it all feels a lot more pointless than the way the first movie did it, and while I enjoyed watching all the projectile vomiting and cutting or tearing off of various limbs, I really didn't enjoy the so-called Abomination. Sort of fell flat and felt like stuff we've seen in other films like The Ring or The Grudge. On the other hand, I enjoyed when the characters were becoming possessed. That to me was creepier than the evil entity itself, and in some ways more well done than the original.

I really thought there was some strong acting in this movie. I wasn't anticipating this, because the setup and mood really felt a lot like some of those subpar 2000s revamps of other horror classics, and the horror culture at that time certainly did not emphasize acting compared to other things like looks. Really enjoyed the handsome Shiloh Fernandez as the calm and caring older brother, even if he got a little dim at parts. As in most movies like this, each character got a bit conveniently dumb (feels like Cabin in the Woods at play) at times, including the heavily-criticized Eric (Pucci)—who was probably my least favorite of the bunch—who immediately reads from the Naturom Demonto even though he knows it's an awful idea. The real star of the movie is Jane Levy as Mia, who keeps us entertained the whole time as she moves from emo/traumatized to violent withdrawal/psychosis to demon-possessed to badass final girl.

As in the original, this continuation employs unrelenting horror to disgust and terrify audiences. Does it work? In some ways, it's more refreshing than the first, which is admittedly cornier with more syrup-heavy fake blood and colorful gore. This version wanted to go darker, and it certainly did that, but I feel it missed out on the great cinematography and creative violence of the first. The film ends up serving as a sort of grittier tribute that takes itself too seriously (I hate the movie poster so much). Still, I appreciate the sheer volume of violence and gore it offers once the demons are released. When it comes to the sexual violence in the film—which has taken a thornier turn for the worse—the same questions are raised: What is the purpose of the violence? Is it to terrorize us further or is it simply a shock factor? This time around, it was less explicit, with more of a sci-fi possession twist going on.

Final critique: It's no surprise that a modern take on The Evil Dead was going to happen eventually, so it's a good thing it was done with as much respect and detail as this version, which had the guidance of the original team. At first it may feel like a forced and darker version of the original, but eventually the sheer action and gore help stand this film on its own two feet, although fans of the first will miss the dark and slapstick humor that made it a cult classic. If you can't do gore, stay away from this film, which has it in spades. Otherwise, this movie isn't spectacularly scary, and if it weren't for the name and history attached to it, it feels pretty forgettable.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Happy Death Day (2017)

GENERAL INFO:
Director: Christopher Landon
Studios: Blumhouse Productions, Universal Pictures
Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard
Tagline: Get up. Live your day. Get Killed. Again.; Make Every Death Count.
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre: horror, thriller, slasher, masked murderer, serial killer, mystery, black comedy
Scare score: C+
Rating: B+


Plot overview: College student Tree (Rothe) wakes up in a strange dorm to an even stranger birthday. That night, she is stalked and killed by an ominous hooded figure wearing the mask of the school's mascot— a very unnerving baby face. Suddenly, Tree wakes back up in the same dorm room on the same morning her birthday. After several more horrifying encounters and deaths, Tree realizes she is trapped in a bloody time loop and must stop her own murder before it can happen again.

Critics have described this movie as Groundhog Day meets Scream, and truly that is the best way to sum it up. The creative team clearly had a fun time mixing a classic slasher film with some more lighthearted '80s influences, and the result really was an enjoyable movie. I wanted to see this really badly when it first came out, but never got around to it for whatever reason, so here we are two years later. Of course, that's nothing compared to how long this movie actually took to get off the ground:

Fun fact: The idea for this movie was first announced in 2007. It was called Half to Death and was set to be produced by Michael Bay and star Megan Fox (oh, the early aughts). I'm glad it took so long to get green-lighted.

Happy Death Day toes the line between serving the audience a fairly engaging mystery/slasher/thriller and also having a lot of fun with itself while introducing us to the overtly stereotypical Bayfield University and exploring new ways to kill off Tree. I will quickly say that I don't personally know any Theresas, and I've never heard of a Theresa going by "Tree" so I thought that from the start I was distracted by our leading lady's name because I was trying to figure out what they were saying. Kind of felt like they were really going out on a limb (Sorry).

One thing that immediately caught me off guard as we got into the swing of things was the similarity between this movie and the fantastic Netflix original Russian Doll starring an incomparable Natasha Lyonne. If you haven't seen that yet, I highly recommend it because it's an artistic, quirky, and beautiful metaphysical exploration of mental illness, relationships, and meaning. At the time, I thought it was so original, a darker turn on Groundhog Day to be certain, but while watching Happy Death Day it became clear to me that Russian Doll must have taken a few pointers from this movie as well. Still really worth a watch if you are looking for an easy show to binge. Moving along...

I really found myself enjoying this film. While it did not live up to the expectations I had for it, I thought it was easy to watch, with its fair share of thrills and scares mostly concentrated in the first third of the movie while the rest of the film becomes more focused on Tree solving the mystery of her own repeating and impending murder. By the point, the scares dwindle rapidly and the true action of the movie sets in.

Like most other films and shows about time loops, this becomes a movie about character agency and personal growth. For whatever reason we choose to believe, Tree is given a chance to save not only herself but to mend some broken relationships along the way. I thought Jessica Rothe did a nice job as Tree, turning a fairly one-dimensional role into a more entertaining and strong lead. We've seen 'bitchy popular sorority sister' done a million times, typically as a victim, so it was refreshing to see a slasher film turn that on its head as she overcame fat-shaming, slut-shaming, and—you know—murder. She refused to become a victim, unless it was for somebody else's sake. That being said, we see Tree in neglige countless times while every male in the film remains completely covered, there is a subplot of a closeted gay guy who is ultimately reduced from being a potential threat to being "cute"— as one might treat a pet—and finally there is a murder scene staged as an allusion to sexual assault in fraternity culture. Some of these felt a little too cheap to me in a movie that is otherwise about empowerment.

I thought the creative team did a great job with the Baby Face killer. Horror Buff loves a good masked murderer, and this mask really found a good balance that mirrored the movie's comedic lightness while still being a horror film. It was irritating and eerie at the same time.

Fun fact: The mask in this movie was created by Tony Gardner, who also designed one of the most famous faces in horror: the Ghostface mask from the Scream franchise. He was inspired to use the image of a baby because his wife was carrying their first child at the time of production.

There was also some nice filming going on here, which is especially important to slashers. I was happy to see the lovely campus of Loyola University down in New Orleans: It helped set the scene of your typical southern college experience, which was further enriched by all the shots from the quads (filled with potential suspects!) as well as that great sorority house. I enjoyed most of the chase scenes, even when they became a little ridiculous, and perhaps one of the most fun things this movie was able to do was reinvent Tree's perpetual death in new and wild ways. My favorite shot from the film was towards the end of the movie when we see Tree blow out the candle on her birthday cupcake, and that gorgeous red candle drips a little wax like blood while the smoke still lingers in the air. Really nice.

*SPOILER ALERT*

I liked that this movie offered up so many suspects as we joined Tree in her nightmarish birthday whodunnit. I personally was more suspicious of Dr. Gregory Butler (Charles Aitken) and/or his wife Stephanie (Laura Clifton), so while I didn't even like roommate Lori's (Ruby Modine) look from the start, I didn't really see it coming. In retrospect, there were a ton of clues, from the promotional material of the cupcake all the way through her sketchy way of finding out Tree's birthday and even her questionable overtime at the hospital. All in all, it was a neat way for the entire plot to come together and add that twist at the end.

Final critique: This movie asks us to buy into a very curated and stereotypical college experience, but it advances the slasher tropes slightly by giving our final girl the agency to save herself. The movie is a mix of black comedy and thriller with some added unexplained phenomenon and lots of action, so it's definitely going to be appealing to a wider range of audiences than a horror movie alone might be. (This thing KILLED at the box office. 2017 was a huge year for Blumhouse between this movie, Split, and Get Out.) Now that I've finally seen it, I guess I can look forward to the sequel, although I've heard it's even less scary. Overall, this was an enjoyable watch, easy for anyone looking for a few scares but otherwise a genuinely fun film.




Sunday, March 24, 2019

The Wicker Man (1973)

GENERAL INFO:
Director: Robin Hardy
Studios: British Lion Films
Starring: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento; ft. Ingrid Pitt
Tagline: Flesh to touch... Flesh to burn! Don't keep the Wicker Man waiting!
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, psychological thriller, mystery, drama, suspense, cult, occult
Scare score: C-
Rating: B+


Plot overview: After receiving a mysterious letter alerting him about a missing girl, police Sergeant Neil Howie (Woodward) ventures alone to the remote Scottish island of Summerisle. His investigation is steadily thwarted by the townspeople, who first deny that the girl, Rowan (Gerry Cowper), ever existed and then claim that she passed away. Howie, a devout Christian, is further put off by the locals' pagan beliefs and traditions, headed by the genteel but unsympathetic Lord Summerisle (Lee). As Howie grows closer to solving the mystery, he becomes part of the town's May Day celebrations and soon learns the horrifying truth about the island and its people.

I have mixed feelings about this movie mostly because of the time period and because of how much thrilling potential the film ultimately fails to live up to. That being said, it was shot on a small budget and was a fairly rushed production, and given the general kitsch of the genre in the early '70s, it's incredible what a lasting impact this movie has had.

The Wicker Man is equally imaginative and macabre, well-researched and well if dramatically acted, and it includes some truly beautiful shots of Scotland and the Hebrides, especially in the stunning opening and final sequences. Even with the beautiful open landscapes, we feel a sort of claustrophobia as Howie enters the tiny island community, remaining an outcast in every sense of the word throughout his investigation. There is something frustrating about trying to take something seriously—especially the alleged disappearance of a child—only to be met with folly, ridicule, and condescension, and Howie encounters that in spades.

Aside from its great plot—adapted from David Pinner's novel Ritual and in many ways recreated in the Netflix original Apostle—this movie relies on strong acting to carry us through the deepening mystery. Edward Woodward forces us to take him as seriously as Sgt. Howie takes himself in the movie and delivers some especially wonderful scenes closer to the end. How special is it to see the late, great Christopher Lee? Hot off his success with Hammer Horror (which I grew up on but haven't reviewed yet!), a younger-than-we're-used-to-seeing-him Lee takes on a more cerebral role as the lofty and manipulative Lord Summerisle. More like Lord Exposition amirite? Still, a great performance from him. Individual characters also stand out throughout the film in varied and creepy ways, most notably the Swedish beauty Britt Ekland as a pagan temptress, her creepy father played by Lindsay Kemp (a lover and muse of David Bowie), an especially sinister Aubrey Morris as the gravedigger, and a very formidable Ian "Mammoth" Campbell.

Fun fact: In a 2005 interview, Christopher Lee would consider this his best film. Saruman and Counts Dooku and Dracula can take a hike.

Though the editing feels choppy throughout and I don't think the mystery meets its full potential, this movie has a lot of positive points. Designed specifically to deliver more drawn out suspense and not to rely fully on jump scares or gore unlike other horror movies of the time, The Wicker Man is an enduringly creepy movie. The disturbing norms and traditions of Summerisle start early in the movie and don't stop coming, more often than not based around or in the form of music and dancing. The filmmakers did a great job at researching paganism and representing it in a fairly unbiased way throughout the movie— in fact, the only judgments we see made upon these traditions come from the zealous Howie. The film features plenty of mellow '70s music—I felt like I was listening to Nick Drake half the time—but there is some really beautiful traditional music as well. Some of the most memorably unsettling musical scenes are the May pole, birds-and-bees-style song led by children and the schoolmaster as well as some horrifying chanting and arm-swaying at the end.

Final critique: Overall, this is a weird movie that remains eerie and impactful nearly 50 years later— it really does put the "cult" in cult classic. Part of me wishes it were made in a different time period or with a different production quality, but at the end of the day, it all came together to make something very digestible for general audiences without being too scary to watch. Really it's hardly scary at all, but the questions it raises are where the true terror comes in. While watching, you know you're uncomfortable or frightened, even if you can't put your finger on it, and the suspense builds beautifully right up until the last shot.

It Follows (2014)

GENERAL INFO:
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Studios: Northern Lights Films, Animal Kingdom, Two Flints, RADiUS-TWC
Starring: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Lili Sepe, Olivia Luccardi, Daniel Zovatto, Jake Weary
Tagline: It doesn't think. It doesn't feel. It doesn't give up.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, supernatural thriller, psychological thriller, drama, teen
Scare score: A
Rating: A



Plot overview: After finding out her new boyfriend Hugh (Weary) isn't who he claims to be, college student Jay (Monroe) learns she's being followed by a murderous force that will track her down unless she "passes it on" by having sex with somebody new. Jay is skeptical at first but soon finds herself plagued by something horrendous taking the forms of loved ones and gruesome strangers. As she tracks down Hugh to learn more about the entity with the help of her sister (Sepe) and their friends, Jay must make the terrible decision: keep running, or pass it on.

I adore this movie. After seeing it in theaters a couple years back I was aware how important it felt; I've watched it countless times since and it's frequently at the top of my list when recommending newer horror movies to others.

Of course I'm biased because It Follows has some of Horror Buff's favorite components, namely a retro feel, a healthy monster-mystery ratio, and a stunning synth soundtrack giving me the '80s vibe I crave in movies.

Let's start with the worldbuilding because it's the first thing that stood out to me upon seeing this film, and I feel it's one of its strongest suits. At first we are handed a seemingly standard middle America filled with split-level houses and backyard pools— and that certainly is the reality that It Follows takes place inside of. There is a huge commentary on urban decay and division, specifically around the Detroit metro area (similar to Don't Breathe, also with Daniel Zovatto), which I feel ties into the loss of innocence theme I will explore later. In many ways, writer and director David Robert Mitchell made his sophomore movie as a love story to his home state of Michigan, from the suburbs to Detroit to the Great Lakes, and I really appreciated that.

Where the reality we're given starts to take a more interesting turn is in the mix of modern and retro, as well as futuristic. One of the most fantastic details in the movie is Yara's (Luccardi) Polly Pocket-meets-Kindle tech, a savvy reimagining of modern E-readers (flashlight included!) that I couldn't get enough of (and she uses it to read Dostoevsky, nonetheless). We also see a mix of retro cars, black and white TVs, movie theaters with organs, and old fashioned furniture that flood this film with Americana ranging roughly between the 1960s and the 2030s. This is complemented by the retro synth soundtrack and the very, very cool poster seen above.

This is truly some of the best horror I can recall seeing in recent years, even if the movie loses its way a little towards the end. I think one of the best things this film has going for it is that the horror here is twofold: both supernatural and very real and present. In terms of the latter, and like many horror movies set in suburbia, the concept of small neighborhoods and teenagers being terrorized means the home is no longer safe. In this case of this supernatural entity, even friends and family may not be who they seems, and so this curse of sorts—and the real or imagined stigma around it—isolates you. We see how Jay is still paranoid and locks herself in her room even after she knows she is temporarily "safe."

Strong acting from this movie's young cast makes things even more enjoyable, specifically thanks to the unassuming Maika Monroe (a budding scream queen in her own right, she also stars in the fun thriller The Guest) and the perfectly dorky Keir Gilchrist, who I'm sure we will continue to see more of. I also really liked Olivia Luccardi as the dry and precocious Yara; she added a fun dimension to the group.

The movie's fantastic cinematography echoes this sense of paranoia and stays true to the film's title: the camerawork constantly makes us feel like we are being followed. This voyeurism begins in innocent ways—the neighbors watching Jay in the pool at the beginning, Jay's game of picking somebody in public to trade places with—but steadily grows more sinister when we feel like we're watching or being watched from the back seat of the car or being spied upon during the initial sex scene. These creepier shots are complemented by the film's use of beautiful widescreen and even 360 degree captures that show off both interior sets and the stunning Michigan landscape; either way they remind us that someone or something is always watching. I also loved the shots of Jay in (above and below) the pool towards the end, as well as the many shots of the kids throughout the movie, so often lounging around, whether in spite or unaware of the looming terror. To me, this also represented the sort of innocence experienced by Kelly, Yara, and Paul (Gilchrist) even after Jay has lost hers.

*SPOILER ALERT*

I really can't stress how much I enjoy this movie and all the questions it raises, especially in terms of what the evil entity is. The film strikes a great balance between showing us the various manifestations of 'it' and leaving us searching for something onscreen that may or may not really be there. Few things are scarier to me than something in the distance steadily getting closer, and this movie has that in spades. How terrifying are the actors/makeup chosen for the scenes where we do see 'it'? I think for this reason alone it's some of the best horror we've seen in years. This movie uses nudity so, so well (similar to 2018's Hereditary, both with cinematography by Mike Gioulakis). It makes sense here given the sexual themes of the film (are some of these deformed bodies former victims?), but it also terrifies and disgusts us, even in taboo ways (incarnations of naked and/or wounded parents, the big naked man on the roof, and my favorite, the woman peeing in the kitchen— few things are more horrifying than a wet sock). It's almost a shame that these manifestations sometimes come and go too quickly or before we meet certain characters, because ultimately we see 'it' appear as both Hugh and Greg's moms as well as Jay's dad. In terms of casting, the scariest part of this movie to me is when the coast seems clear until the 'Giant' enters Jay's bedroom looking like some version of Lurch straight out of hell. This was also a lovely nod to Michigan since that actor is the late Mike Lanier, former basketball player and Michigan's tallest man, who passed away in 2018.

Speaking of theories and themes, we have the obvious statement about STIs, which I think is the most accepted form of what the entity in the film represents. There is something to be said about risk taking behavior, especially in adolescence, being constantly reminded or educated about the danger of something and still not taking precaution. The younger kids are even seen playing Old Maid while Jay is out on her nightmare date, an innocent childhood game where the loser is left with the card of the unmarried woman. Then there is the big loss of innocence theme, starting early in the film from the neighbors innocently spying on Jay in her bathing suit, to her being too cool or mature to hang out with her sisters and friends (who discuss crushes and laugh at their farts), to Jay's virginal pink dress and modest, retro bra/underwear on her dates with Hugh. Even after sleeping with Hugh, Jay comments on how she "used to daydream about being old enough to go on dates and drive around in cars," and in the follow moments that innocence is stripped away. The idea of sex (Jay's first time?) becomes something dangerous and suddenly represents violence as it becomes quickly weaponized. "Just sleep with someone as soon as you can," Hugh warns her, later commenting that it should be easy for her because she's a pretty girl. This careless and dangerous sexism continues both with skeptical player Greg (Zovatto) and even the dorky and innocent Paul— is he really trying to protect Jay, or is this all a chance for him to finally sleep with her after years of pining? In the movie's most quietly defeating scene, Jay strips down a swims out to a boat filled with three men, implying that she will have sex with all of them to buy herself more time.

In many ways, this movie is also about duplicity, from Jay and Hugh going to see Charade on their movie date to Hugh lying about his identity to Greg, Paul, and Jay's equally questionable behavior throughout the movie in regards to sex and self-preservation. Does Paul really sleep with those sex workers or is he just scouting out potential victims to help himself?

On the other hand, the movie may not be about sexually transmitted infections so much as the general existential view that death is inevitable and constantly getting closer. Sex (or love) is but one thing we can do to give our time meaning or make life feel like it's lasting longer; still, nothing changes our ultimate fate. This theme is paralleled by Yara's reading of The Idiot—ripe with messages about morality, fate, and losing your personhood—as well as when Jay's teacher reads from T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"— a poem filled with beautiful and haunting lines like "Do I dare/ Disturb the universe?/ In a minute there is time/ For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse."

Finally, we have the idea of water as purifying, from Jay floating in her backyard pool to the group escaping to the lake to finally fighting 'it' in a pool. Ultimately, I'm not sure what gives the kids the idea that this force, which we haven't seen anyone but Jay and a half-assed Paul show any real reaction to, can be killed via electrocution. I thought this scene became a bit of a cop-out—in general any of the scenes where the kids try blindly to shoot 'it' but are actually shooting towards their friends became a little wild and annoying—but I did love that the man at the pool is implied to be their absent father, which is why Jay is hesitant to tell her friends too much. Like all good ghost movies, I love when 'it' materializes under the sheet they throw on top of him and suddenly open air has a frightening human shape. One final thing that bugged me that I can't really get over is when Jay sleeps on the hood of her car in the middle of a forested road, which seemed out of character and frankly asinine for somebody who has fought so hard to stay safe the entire movie.

Final critique: All in all, the film does have a few small holes and overly dramatic moments, and it loses its way a bit towards the end. In spite of these weak points, this movie is fantastic and one of the strongest examples the horror genre has had in years. I would recommend this movie to anybody, but I think it really is quite scary, both in its lingering moral and supernatural questions. How great would this movie be to watch in a drive-in somewhere? Can't beat that retro feel with modern techniques, plots, and special effects. Be safe out there!

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Hereditary (2018)

GENERAL INFO:
Director: Ari Aster
Studios: A24, PalmStar Media, Finch Entertainment, Windy Hill Pictures
Starring: Toni Collette, Ann Dowd, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro
Tagline: Every family tree hides a secret.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, supernatural thriller, family drama, mystery, occult, witches, cult
Scare score: A
Rating: A+


Plot overview: After the death of her secretive mother, Annie Graham's (Collette) family begins to be plagued by suspicious and tragic events. Stricken by grief, Annie falls farther away from her family: strained husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), withdrawn son Peter (Wolff), and distant daughter Charlie (Shapiro). As the family continues to unravel, Annie finds solace in Joan (Dowd), a woman from a grief support group who tries convincing her that the dead may not really be gone after all.

This is a stunningly horrifying film that I would recommend to anyone. If you want to truly spiral into terror and insanity and spill your popcorn all over the place, this is the movie for you.

I think what I love most about this movie is that it keeps on taking you where you do not expect it to go. It's really not a genre bender, but I swear, even the second time I watched it I was so impressed and delighted with the twists and turns it takes. This movie constantly keeps you on the edge of your seat as its horrible reality unfurls.

We start with the Graham family, currently faced with the loss of Annie's mysterious mother, Ellen. Though grief-struck, we come to realize that it is not at the loss of the old woman but at something deeper and perhaps long gone. In fact, the only person who seems truly upset with Ellen's passing is young Charlie, a seeming outcast who is often silent save for her habitual tongue click. Her fixation with building toys and models with mismatched heads feels somehow disturbing but pales in comparison to her mother's works: Annie is an artist renowned for her work crafting miniatures, impeccably created scenes from her past and present all on display in smaller scale in her workshop. Her art should be for the world to see, but with an upcoming exhibition looming on Annie's mind and feeling ever more unlikely, the miniatures instead become for Annie alone. They provide what she calls "a neutral view," but we come to learn that these fastidiously-made models are a way for Annie to reflect on her own choices and memories and control everything therein.

Despite their troubles, the family maintains a semblance of normality until another freak accident spins everything out of control. More on that after the Spoiler jump.

The acting in this film is fantastic. There is something sinister about Collette throughout the movie that makes you question her at every turn, even when it feels like she is the only person so desperately trying to keep her family from falling apart. The movie provides beautiful commentary on grief, mental illness, and family, especially between children and their parents. It forces us to ask what is the meaning (or purpose) of family? What do we inherit aside from names and traditions? What things do we carry with and inside of us, even if we would rather not? I'm definitely on the bandwagon that Collette was snubbed for major award recognition because her performance here is wide-ranging and superb and should go down as a classic in the horror genre. I was equally impressed by young Alex Wolff, a former child star on Nickelodeon and now a budding actor and director. The role of Peter is crucial to the film and Wolff portrays the reserved, greasy-haired, pot-smoking teen so naturally. I thought it was especially wonderful how vulnerable Peter was, and the scenes were he is clearly terrified or left crying really stuck with me. Ann Dowd was also a treat, and I thought her voice was really perfect for her role and the lines she has in the movie.

Furthermore, the cinematography is beautiful. The shots in and around the Grahams' home were fantastic, as were the many scenes taking place in and around cars: I especially liked the use of the rearview mirrors. There is also the terrific use of the color red: From heat lamps to break lights to bloody eyes, there is something haunting and demonic about it. Toward the end of the film, we are treated to some really spectacular camera work as an unsteady, wavering camera follows characters around the dark house. The movie plays with the concept of Annie's miniatures vs. real life and several times we're not sure if what we're looking at is real or an imitation— or if it matters either way. Is this Annie's perspective and can we trust it? Or are the lofty, overhead shots supposed to be from God's eye (or something else floating above)? Lastly, the film has some delightfully unexpected transitions, such as when day suddenly turns to night in the same frame or when ominous bodies and figures are teased just in or just out of focus.

I also thought the movie had great music, most of all the stunning orchestrations in the final sequence, and a lot of the soundtrack reminded me of The VVitch, which is also distributed by A24, one of my favorite production companies of the moment both for horror and other genres. I'm currently counting down the days until Ari Aster's next movie (also with A24), Midsommar.

*SPOILER ALERT*

I love how quickly things start to fall apart for the characters in this movie, and with most of the action concentrated in the first and third acts, plus plenty of scares and drama when you least expect it, you're pretty captivated for the entire thing. We have the classic case of an unreliable narrator potentially slipping into madness, which means we're never quite sure who or what to believe as events start to spiral out of control. We learn early on that Annie's family has a history of severe mental illness, especially disorders with high rates of heritability such as schizophrenia or depression. There is horror in the film long before the thrilling end, and that is in the death of the family unit. As the Grahams continue to fall apart, evil continues to gain a stronger hold. I thought one of the saddest moments of the film was when a manic Annie tries comforting Peter by acknowledging that something terrible is happening, reassuring her terrified son and saying "I'm the only one who can fix this." At this point, we already don't believe her. But is mental health really any explanation for what's happening here, or is it something more supernatural entirely?

I adore this movie. If you pay close enough attention, you'll realize that something is off from the earliest scenes, perhaps starting with the man at Ellen's funeral smiling so intently at Charlie. I loved how these unnerving and suspenseful moments grew in frequency and scale throughout the movie, ultimately leading to the climax of the cult moving in on the Graham household. Shots with ominous figures just in range but still obscured are some of my favorite in horror, and this movie starts with single figures before giving us that incredible shot of dozens of naked bodies surrounding the house. I think the disturbing use of naked bodies in horror is incredibly effective, especially if done the way this movie or It Follows does it. We're so used to the hypersexualization of bodies in horror that their unwanted appearance perverts the entire process and makes already-scary scenes all the more frightening.

Other details I loved in this movie were the awesome seance scenes and the unforgettable finale with Toni Collette lingering in the shadows of the ceiling. I'm always into a classroom scene that mirrors the plot (à la Halloween), and we get several of them in this movie if you know to pay attention to them. At one point we can read "Punishment brings wisdom" on the blackboard in Peter's classroom, and we also hear a teacher explaining that a character's "murder was commanded by the gods." Little does Peter know while zoning out in class and staring at his crush's butt that he, too, is involved in a much larger and sinister plot with otherworldly beings taking control. I thought the tongue click may have been the single most ingenious thing this movie did (who knew how scary it sounded?), and I love that something as simple as a nut allergy was enough to take down a demon, or at least his weak human form. The car scene with the two kids in the middle of nowhere is just such a treat, because it breaks my number one cardinal rule and takes you so by surprise you almost can't believe it's really happening. Though I find it hard to believe that even a traumatized teen would be able to simply drive away and go to bed without telling his parents, Collette's reaction to this untimely (and familiar) loss is fantastic. As the story comes together, it makes sense why Annie described it as feeling like she "gave up" Charlie to her mother (never let grandma breastfeed the kids), or why her brother committed suicide and blamed his decision on his mother for "putting people inside" of him. It's no surprise that in the West, the medical model is preferred over supernatural explanations, and mental disorders are diagnosed in cases that other cultures might attribute to spiritual causes. Hereditary shares that theme with The Exorcist, not to mention the whole possession of innocent children by demon kings of the west.

The ending of the film is one of the most memorable things to happen to horror in recent years, and I truly hope the movie goes down in horror halls of fame far outside of Horror Buff's own blog.

Final critique: This movie is a treat and I would recommend it to anybody, but I would warn them that they are really in for a wild and scary ride. Hereditary takes twists and turns unlike we've seen in a long time, and it masterfully mixes classic horror themes and tropes with new and refreshing characters and situations. Hats off to Ari Aster on this screenplay; this is the kind of horror movie that can redeem the entire genre for mainstream audiences. I look forward to rewatching this time and again.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Jacob's Ladder (1990)

GENERAL INFO:
Director: Adrian Lyne
Studios: Carolco Pictures, TriStar Pictures
Starring: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello; ft. Macaulay Culkin (uncredited), Jason Alexander, Lewis Black
Tagline: The most frightening thing about Jacob Singer's nightmare is that he isn't dreaming.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, psychological thriller, mystery, conspiracy, drama
Scare score: B+
Rating: A




Plot overview: Several years after his deployment in Vietnam, Jacob Singer (Robbins) still has flashbacks to a traumatic battle that left him gravely wounded. Now living in New York City with his girlfriend Jezzie (Peña), Jacob misses his ex-wife and children and continues to dream about them, especially the youngest boy, Gabe (Culkin), who died in an accident. Around this time, Jacob begins to have nightmarish visions of "demons"— vibrating, featureless faces and slimy, tentacled monsters. After several near-death encounters, Jacob reunites with several former members of his platoon and the men begin to seek answers from the army about what really happened in Vietnam.

The first time I tried watching Jacob's Ladder was back in high school with a friend who shared my love for horror movies, but I regret to say I fell asleep. I don't know what took me so long to finally come back to it, but I'm so, so glad I did.

This movie is excellent. Written by Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost— also from 1990! Big year for him.), it took a while for the project to get off the ground given its graphic and niche metaphysical, religious, and military nature. Rubin said the general idea for the film came from a dream he had about being trapped in the New York City subway, but it's clear how his experimentation with LSD and subsequent time spent hiking and meditating in countries like Tibet and India helped inspire the final project. The title is a reference to a Biblical story about a ladder leading to heaven, and themes of both life, death, purgatory, heaven, and hell are constant throughout the movie. Perhaps this is most emphasized during the scene where Jacob's trusted chiropractor and friend Louis Denardo (Aiello) imparts some wisdom from 14th-century mystic Meister Eckhart:

"Eckhart saw Hell too. He said: 'The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won't let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they're not punishing you,' he said. 'They're freeing your soul. So, if you're frightened of dying and ... you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.'"

The underlying themes of the movie may be deep, but if you're looking for a good scare without having to think about it, this movie is still an excellent choice. From the first scenes of the film, there is a near-constant juxtaposition of action and stillness, violence and peace, gore and sex that will leave you unsettled during the entire viewing. The filmmakers do a wonderful job of transporting us back to the New York City of the 1970s: a grungy, frightening place even without hallucinations and demons. In many ways, this does feel a bit like Ghost and even Fatal Attraction, which Lyne directed three years earlier, but the horror here is different and much more pervasive and not for the faint of heart. In fact, they had to cut upwards of 20 minutes that were considered too disturbing or depressing for audiences. I NEED to find these and watch them all!

One of my favorite movies of all time is The Shawshank Redemption, so it was great to see Tim Robbins in a different kind of role. In fact, I couldn't help but think how great it was to see him in a movie that didn't hide how tall he is (6'5"!). Robbins is an excellent actor, and his subdued manner often allows the audience to process the horror of his present situation right alongside him as the mystery of the plot continues to unfold.

At first, the horror in this movie appears in the form of suspenseful situations (now I will think of this every time I'm on the subway) and the masterfully done demons. Faceless and pulsating, and always out of frame before we can get a closer look at them. The gory imagery of the movie was inspired by the works of artist Francis Bacon and would go on to play a huge impact in the development of both Silent Hill and American Horror Story: Asylum. Next, we are handed a conspiracy theory so apropos of the Cold War and Vietnam era that adds to the growing paranoia of the film. Little by little, however, we start to lose touch with reality along with Jacob until we are truly faced with the decision of just how horrifying—or liberating—the truth may be.

Fun fact: Tom Hanks almost played the role of Jacob. I think he would have been great, too.

*SPOILER ALERT*

This film is really excellent. There is something about the grungy and desolate feel of New York in the '70s and the absolute existential failure that was Vietnam that adds a sort of desperate emptiness to the movie and leaves it characters searching for life and answers through parties, music, sex, palm readings, and ultimately through the final mystery of what really happened to Jacob's unit in Vietnam.

Inspired in part by Ambrose Bierce's American classic "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", the film comments on the horrors of war and the manipulation of the people by the government. On a more metaphysical level, the movie draws from Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State, also known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. In Buddhism, the intermediate state, or bardo, refers to the transitional period between death and rebirth when one's consciousness reigns free of its physical limitations and experiences phenomena that may resemble reality but may also drift into unfettered and horrible hallucinations. For those prepared for death and rebirth, the intermediate state can offer a chance for great liberation.

If you've seen the movie and understood its twist ending, you can see just how influential this particular aspect of Buddhist mysticism played on Rubin's development of the film's plot and resolution. I especially loved the references to the Eckhart quote and how it suddenly becomes clear the role various characters and actions—Jezzie and when she burns the old pictures of Jacob's family, Paul (Pruitt Taylor Vince) and his exploding car, Gabe especially in the final scene—play in representing this idea of purgatory. It leaves you wondering what's worse: visions of hell after death or the hell that is our reality while we're alive? Is the truth more terrible than the knowledge that can set you free from this intermediate state? Is there hope in hell? What about in life? And will you be ready to go when your time comes? It may be complicated and it may not be for everyone, but it's a poignant question and makes this film worth rewatching time and again.

Final critique: This movie is frankly terrifying, and it becomes even more dark the more you think about it. The demons are disturbing in such a pure and imaginative way that you start to feel unsettled in the first few minutes of the movie and stay that way pretty much the entire time. Coupled with gruesome flashbacks to Vietnam and a truth that's even more horrifying than what Jacob could have imagined, Jacob's Ladder will scare you silly and leave you questioning what's real and what isn't.

Keep an eye out for an updated remake of the film set to release this year! That makes the timing even better to check out the original if you haven't seen it already. I'm interested to see how a modern reimagining of the film, drawing from ongoing wars in the Middle East and dealing with themes of PTSD, changes or honors the story. Life is but a dream...

Us (2019)

So it's been almost 3.5 years, what can I say?

GENERAL INFO:
Director: Jordan Peele
Studios: Blumhouse Productions, Monkeypaw Productions, Universal Pictures
Starring: Lupita Nyong'o, Elisabeth Moss, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex
Tagline: Watch Yourself.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, psychological thriller, home invasion, family drama, conspiracy, suspense
Scare score: C-
Rating: A-


Plot overview: As a young girl (Madison Curry), Adelaide (Nyong'o) encounters a frightening double of herself in a boardwalk house of mirrors. Years later and now with two young children of her own (Wright Joseph, Alex), Adelaide still can't shake the fear of her lingering shadow. She is forced to take a good look at herself after a family clad in red jumpsuits and armed with scissors shows up in the middle of the night.

I stand by my feelings that Get Out changed the horror game and breathed new life into our favorite genre, which I feel has grown more popular in recent years for a few reasons. First, I think we are experiencing a generation of writers and directors/producers who grew up during a beautiful age of horror movies (the '80s) and are now bringing their own dreams to life, filled with nods to the past. Secondly, I think Hollywood is more comfortable with the idea of well-made and even niche horror movies with a message, not just the sensual slashers that plagued (and pleasured) us in the 2000s, and not to mention there are more small studios who can work to take on these projects. Finally—and I have to look into statistics or data on this—but I feel that more audiences want and enjoy horror today, if only because for many people, the real world at present is even more horrible than what they're seeing onscreen.

That being said, don't go into Us expecting it to be the next Get Out. They are different films made for different purposes, and in many aspects I felt they have some different messages to share. Now back to the film at hand.

Us is a freaky, fun, and dynamic movie that plays first and foremost with the themes of division, duplicity, and the doppelgänger. As teased by the movie poster, the viewer should know to go into the film expecting us to "watch ourselves," or know that "we are our own worst enemy" while questioning what lies beneath. As many famous horror movies allow the killer to take on a new identity while masked, so Us forces us to think about what masks we wear on a daily basis to get ahead, to thrive, or merely to survive. The first foil we encounter is between the Wilsons—Adelaide's family—and their friends the Tylers. Headed by "it's vodka o'clock" wife Kitty (Moss) and one-upping husband Josh (Tim Heidecker), the Tylers and their bratty twin daughters are everything their respective Wilson counterparts are not: proud, overly talkative, selfish, and entitled. These families ultimately represent a larger message in the film that Peele tries to make with a Biblical subtext: It doesn't matter who you are, what you look like, or what you have, because when the oppressed masses rise up, we'll all be subjected to the same fate. 

This looming thought is introduced several times via the local doomsday man beckoning a sign saying "Jeremiah 11:11." If you don't have your pocket Bible handy during the movie, you'll have to wait until the end to know that this passage reads "Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them." But what evil could this possibly mean? We'll explore after the Spoilers jump.

For those of you who don't want anything spoiled, I will say that I enjoyed this film. The scares were underwhelming but Peele in his own right has become wonderfully adept at suspense flavored either with humor or very human fear. As in Get Out, the audience and characters alike discover absurdity in the most terrifying moments, and while this trick helps treat the viewer as more intelligent than the plethora of on-the-nose horror films of the past (and present), it makes things no less horrifying for everyone involved. Again, this is likely part of Peele's commentary on our world today, where things feel topsy turvy and equally terrible.

I thought Lupita Nyong'o and Elisabeth Moss were brilliant in this film—Moss as her doppelgänger specifically has a memorable silent scream we see via a reflection. Winston Duke as Adelaide's husband Gabe adds a charming levity to the movie and both Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex as their children do incredible jobs. Nyong'o especially explores her duality of light and dark, smooth and jagged, evil and not in a performance that deserves major award recognition. The casting for this film was excellent, especially because of the task that was asked of each actor. The cinematography was also gorgeous, with the many and varied scenes of public and private spaces, light and dark, above and below inviting us in to a visual feast. I'm still dreaming about the house of mirrors and that escalator. No surprise that this was the handiwork of Mike Gioulakis, who brought us It Follows, one of my favorite horror movies of all time that I still haven't blogged about because I took a casual 3.5-year hiatus.

References to some of our other horror favorites abounded, including nods to The Twilight Zone, The Shining, and I think especially to The Strangers, to name a few. I even loved how this was pitched as "a new nightmare" à la Wes Craven but now from Jordan Peele. From the opening overhead view (God's eye?) akin to Kubrick's famous opening credits, to the concept of twins to the tight interior angles, The Shining was the film most referenced as helping inspire Peele for his second major horror picture, so I was surprised to see just how much time was spent feeling like your standard home invasion.

*SPOILER ALERT*

I didn't know what to expect going into the theater. Trailers certainly teased the concept of the dark doppelgänger, but this film packed much more into its 116-minute run time. In fact, I think the movie's biggest fault is that it packed too much into its ambitious plot.

I am obsessed with the '80s and also with amusement parks in movies (The Lost Boys, Strangers on a Train, even Teen Witch, to name a few), so I found many scenes from this movie practically magical, especially when Adelaide discovers the underground world beneath the boardwalk. The '80s kitsch was also so good, especially with the Hands Across America plot, because Peele uses it to provide commentary on the parallels between the Regan '80s and our current world: There is a sense of hollowness or superficiality that makes even kind or humanitarian gestures seem fake. Here again we see our theme of duplicity: public and private faces, doublespeak and hidden messages, behavior vs. intent. Who are we really? How do you categorize between "good" and "evil" when some people are just trying to survive? And will we pay for it all?

I was not expecting the eerie (and slightly irrelevant?) opening title message about vast unused tunnels under the United States, which immediately threw me for a curveball upon seeing the movie. As it turns out, this would become one of many aspects the movie included to feel spookier, but that I feel didn't fully pan out. At the end of the day, I really enjoyed this movie, but the myth it wanted us to buy into was too big and too vague for me to feel totally comfortable with it. Sure, most horror movies are based on ridiculous plots, and even Get Out was *impossible*, but there was something about the idea that some government (?) agency cloned us all and forced our Tethered doubles to mimic our every moves in their subterranean classrooms and hallways all while feasting on raw rabbit. I enjoyed the concept of the "puppet masters" and the "puppets," mostly for how this complements the theme of doubles, and even though I found myself adoring the scene where Red explains this all to Adelaide, it was just too much. Regarding the Tethered doppelgängers, I loved their sort of nonspeak (except for Heidecker, who I thought went overboard with the sounds/ was too comically animated more so than the others), and I think that raspy, breathing-in-to-talk choice was really effective.

As far as the twist ending goes, I wish I could say I saw it coming but I didn't until closer to the end. There were times during the film—especially as we see Adelaide embrace the violence and become more animalistic, even through her son's eyes—when I wondered if she had somehow been swapped without us knowing, but of course it was all much more sinister than that. I would love to rewatch the film knowing what I know now in order to pick up on all of those delicious clues. I think it would have cued me in sooner to the concept of the secrets we keep, the truths we ignore, and the masks we wear to live the lives we think we are supposed to live or that we think we deserve to live, even at the expense—whether we know about it or not—of many other people. Are we innocent of the suffering of these Others, who in many ways are just like Us? Or are we guilty, even if we are unaware of their existence in a Sunken Place of sorts, of all that we did not do to right these wrongs? And furthermore, what price to we pay to rise out of those dark places and join the happy majority above ground? I viewed this transition as the "invitation to whiteness" so prominent in the United States by which many peoples and cultures that were once considered minorities were invited to join the white group in power (think women, the Irish, Italians). Some people, such as dark-skinned black Americans, may never be formally invited to join this group, but over time, the decreasing white group realizes its power is slipping and thus invites another marginalized group to rise either to real or imagined power. And of course, many formerly-non-power individuals jump at this opportunity to live out their own American Dream— but at what price? This is the fear 'Adelaide' lives in constantly, knowing that she has abandoned her people beneath the ground to advance only herself, and it provides major commentary about what it's like to alternate between power and non-power groups in the United States. Ultimately it's the real Adelaide-turned-Red who teaches the other Tethereds what it means to have true agency and to have to truly fight, unite, and join hands to make a statement that the world will finally listen to. It's a revolution, and it's no coincidence that Adelaide knew what she was missing from the world above in order to stay determined, inspire the other Tethereds (via "the dance"), and ultimately fight back and educate/moralize the 'Adelaide' we know on the concepts of reparations, revenge, and justice.

All in all, I think the most impressive thing about this movie was the challenge handed to the actors who all had to play two versions of themselves. This added such a richness to the film and at many points I found myself questioning if they truly had found other actors to play these roles. Nyong'o especially delivered in her two roles, and that final fight/dance scene was absolutely stunning. Her physicality throughout the film as both characters was excellent.

Final critique: I enjoyed this film, but I find myself describing it to others as "freaky" and not scary. I didn't feel disappointed at the end, but I do think it was ambitious to the point of feeling a little unfinished or hazy around the edges. Still, the plot was fresh and fun, and the commentary on the oppressed masses rising up is Peele's clearest commentary reminding us that, especially in today's world, we are our own worst enemy.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Crimson Peak (2015)

It embarrasses me to say that I've not blogged in almost a year. I've seen dozens of excellent and awful horror movies over the past few months, which I hope I can find the time to review. I just saw Crimson Peak on opening night though, and it was so good I was driven to write about it immediately.

GENERAL INFO:
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Studios: Legendary Pictures, Universal Pictures
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain
Tagline: Beware Crimson Peak
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, terror, supernatural thriller, ghost, Gothic, romance, mystery, drama
Scare score: B-
Rating: A


Plot overview: Around the turn of the 20th century, young and driven Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) is a Buffalo socialite with no interest in parties or the petty competition between the girls of her class. Instead, she aspires to be a writer like Mary Shelley, and is currently working on her manuscript for a ghost story. With the ability to see ghosts from a young age, Edith feels most comfortable in this genre. Her life changes when a young, handsome, and wealthy baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston) and his gorgeously severe sister Lady Lucille (Chastain) come to town, looking to raise funds to reopen the red clay mines underneath their ancestral home, Allerdale Hall, located in the barren countryside of Cumbria in northern England. After Edith and Sir Thomas fall in love, she moves into the Gothic English mansion with nothing to lose, finding it in a dilapidated state as the Sharpes try to regain their family fortune from the red earth, which has earned the home the nickname Crimson Peak. Her new husband and his sister, however, are not as they seem, and Crimson Peak can barely conceal its bloody past, which Edith must now bring to light.

Every once in a while, a horror movie comes along that changes the game. Crimson Peak is one of those films. Finally, del Toro has done it again, bringing to life a magnificent Gothic tale filled with equal parts romance and terror.

I've seen the trailers for this movie for months, and obviously what captured me the most was the incredible visuals. If nothing else, I knew I had to see this movie to see the house. What I didn't know until seeing the film, however, was what a central role Crimson Peak would actually play in the plot, not only as a setting, but as a living, breathing, and bleeding character.

Now I don't think I've ever properly read "The Fall of the House of Usher," but from the second the characters arrive at Allerdale Hall that's what I was forced to think of: a plot where the home itself becomes as important as any of its residents. True to the trailers, this set was incredible, truly a work of beauty. I don't know what was physical and what was CGI, but entering this house was like entering some fantastic and slightly spooky fairy tale mansion, as we've seen before in works of del Toro such as Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, only to a much bigger extent here. It was so gorgeous it makes me upset. On top of that, the props and costumes were amazing, too. For the entirety of the movie, you get sucked into this Gothic world filled with flowing gowns and overstuffed pijamas, long capes and elaborate hair. From the beauty to the blood, this movie was so pretty.

There was certainly a lot of del Toro flair to the film, starting with the storybook opening. The entire ghost plot was extremely reminiscent of The Devil's Backbone, another beautiful, beautiful ghost film. Movies like these remind me why I'm so obsessed with ghost stories: there is a sadness, a lasting sorrow, a pervading beauty behind the metaphor of ghosts and their presence between the physical and spiritual worlds. Del Toro loves working with this theme, the idea that a ghost is a spectral apparition of the past, of some emotion that was too strong to fully leave the Earth, and we love watching it.

The characters were beautifully cast and I'm happy the original choices of Emma Stone and that annoying British actor who I won't name didn't work out, although I think Emma would have done a nice job. I actually haven't seen much of Wasikowska, but the audience should fall for Edith immediately. In fact, the audience should fall for everybody; Hiddleston is dreamily charming albeit creepy as Sir Thomas (it's nice to see him not so done up as Loki) and Chastain–one of my favorite actresses of the moment–is eerily beautiful. She didn't deliver the strongest, but she kept the movie creepy. New(ish)comer who you should expect to see more of Charlie Hunnam as Edith's childhood friend Dr. Alan McMichael was also very pleasant in his very standard role, which rather reminded me of Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera.

Horror wise, the movie is spooky and at times unsettling but not terrifying. What got me the most was the surprise gore and violence that would pop its head up occasionally, causing the audience to jump back in surprise from an otherwise tranquil plot. I was so shocked, in fact, at some of the gore, which isn't nearly as bad as what we're used to, but strangely poignant and used in effectively small doses. The ghosts themselves were especially gross because aside from being mere apparitions or floating sheets, they were in fact quite corporal, hollow specters of corpses, skeletons, rotting flesh, and so much blood. They really spice up the movie.

In terms of faults, there are a handful. The pacing was a little off, some exchanges and maybe scenes felt unnecessary, and all in all, the script probably could have used one more look through and the film maybe could have been edited one more time. The biggest problem of all, however, is the lack of a motive. I thought the plot was a little unfounded, despite a brief explanation by some characters and a lovely monologue by Chastain. I don't know; I just didn't see the need for all the horror and gore taking place after we got the 'big reveal.' Fortunately, the movie is so pretty that you almost forgive any oversights.

Lastly, I need to point out the score. The music, composed by Fernando Velázquez (Devil, The Orphanage, Mama) was so entrancing and moving I couldn't stop listening to it and stayed through the final credits just to hear more. The main romantic theme throughout the movie was so beautiful, I tried looking for it online but it's not up yet. The score alone was enough to make me want to buy this movie the second it comes out; add in the sets and costumes, and I was totally sold.

Final critique: This movie was so fantastic. I think it will join the ranks of other del Toro classics like The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth, although it may not be taken as seriously since it's so heavily horror. Crimson Peak is the perfect ghost story (with its own modern twists), the perfect Gothic romance, the perfect mystery. The most dynamic character is Crimson Peak itself, filled with secrets living and dead; a visually stunning foreground and background to the movie's events. I highly recommend this movie, especially before Halloween. Again, it's not too scary, but the scares are enjoyable. Mainly just eerie with some good scares spread throughout, and the violence/ gore that will catch you off guard. Seriously, bravo.