Showing posts with label psychological thriller. Show all posts
Showing posts with label psychological thriller. Show all posts

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Midsommar (2019)

GENERAL INFO:
Director: Ari Aster
Studios: A24
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren; ft. Will Poulter
Tagline: Let the Festivities Begin.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: thriller, drama, psychological thriller, folk horror, Americans abroad, cult
Scare score: D+
Rating: A-


Plot overview: Following a terrible family tragedy, grieving Dani (Pugh) tags along with distant boyfriend Josh (Reynor) and his fellow anthropology graduate students on trip to partake in a once-in-a-lifetime traditional Swedish solstice festival at the invitation of their friend Pelle (Blomgren). Upon arriving to Hårga, Pelle's isolated commune in northern Sweden, a mix of psychedelic drugs and the delirious effects of the midnight sun soon turn the visitors' search for unique folk traditions into a bad trip of much darker pagan rituals.

This film was gorgeous. I rushed to see it in theaters on opening day, which means that I saw it in a much more crowded theater than I am used to attending. Being surrounded by teenagers took away from much of the film's mastery— especially in the more mature (read: nude) scenes. In many ways, this is a subtle film, filled with stunning shots, quiet beauty, and a storyline that allows you to slowly settle in and experience the characters' pain. In other ways, the film is not subtle and gives the audience all the tools we could possibly need to know exactly what to expect (mostly through the illustrated exposition in the jaw-dropping murals and folk art we see throughout the movie). I was reminded of Hereditary in this sense, which was filled with more than a fair share of Easter eggs, often in the form of small visuals and art that becomes easier to pay attention to and feast upon in second or third watchings. Some of my favorite bits included how the audience is invited to take place in the mushroom trips, including some funky camera work (such as the aerial shots when the larger group first heads to the commune) where the twisting camera makes us lose our own balance for a moment. I would love to watch it again as soon as possible in a deserted theater where I can get lost in the film's artful cinematography and careful details in order to keep reliving what I saw tonight.

Aside from the shots and excellent editing—I will never be over these rich visuals—the acting was fantastic. Florence Pugh was perfect for the role of Dani, especially early on when we get to experience those animalistic groans coming from her. There was something very important in this film about how bereft she often was, how heavy her depression weighs on us—much like Toni Collette's character in Hereditary—as well as the relationship dynamics that play out in the first third of the movie. Is Dani just an overly sensitive, overbearing girlfriend? Jack Reynor as the one-foot-in, one-foot-out boyfriend adds fun dynamics to the movie, especially towards the end as his character experiences a climax and denouement more typically assigned to females in horror. I have long said that I enjoy few things more than well-placed nudity in horror films, and Midsommar, like Hereditary, has it in spades, including plenty of Reynor such that a modern audience is bound to react to this perversion of mainstream movie "rules" and tropes. I also very much enjoyed the aesthetics and performance of Isabelle Grill as Maja, a younger adolescent in the commune who has been selected to take part in a very special ritual during the nine-day solstice celebration.

*SPOILER ALERT*

This movie is gorgeous but it is not scary. It is a slow-burning movie that makes us often forget we are in a "horror" movie because, aside from some moments of tension and some flashes of disturbing imagery (so well done), there is no extreme suspense such as we encountered in Hereditary, or even in an older film like The Wicker Man from which this movie so clearly pulls (including a nod at the end with the character of the fool... even Dani's floral gown reminded me of that large horse costume). I usually love horror movies about travelers in the abroad, and while I wonder if Midsommar will have the effect on Sweden that something like Hostel had on Eastern Europe, this movie was not as frightening as as the Netflix's wonderful The Ritual. Many of the "scary" scenes are presented so fantastically that we, too, become students of anthropology, more interested in the culture and in what is going to happen next than in the inevitable darkness of it all. I knew the movie felt long—rarely dragging, however—but I was shocked that I didn't know about the film's near-two-and-a-half-hour run time. That said, I just want to watch it again and again. I think the gore was surprisingly fine, not nearly as jarring as my fellow audience members made it out to be, and in fact I was surprised as how many major deaths happen offscreen without explanation or closure, and with fairly little emphasis given to the body discoveries that so often shape the third act of horror films. What sticks with me most is the murder-suicide from the beginning, which we are unwilling shown flashbacks to throughout the film in the most excellent ways. I think those are the most purely disturbing images that will stick with me, so painful, so contrasted in a cool palette set in midvinter (ha ha) from the rest of the film's near-blinding white and florals.

Some of my other favorite moments were the shared emotions among the members of the commune. The importance of a collectivist expression of pain, suffering, sorrow, and also joy morphed into such fantastic moments in this movie, especially during the ättestupa suicide ritual, Dani's final breakdown after the brilliant keyhole moment, and the emotionally whelming ending. As far as critiques go, I suppose we always knew where the movie was headed, so it was more of a matter of how we were going to get there.

Horror Hot Take: Midsommar is not a horror movie. Sure, some horrible things happen and there is fantastically beautiful and often gory imagery that we typically see in horror films, but this second feature from Ari Aster is not as steeped in the horror genre as its predecessor. Aster himself made it clear that while he was approached by producer Patrik Andersson to make a Swedish slasher film, he ultimately decided to make a movie about a breakup filled with as much pain and sorrow as the one he was then experiencing in real life.

That said, Midsommar (like Hereditary) is a movie about grief. There is a process, an arc, a journey that we ride along for as Dani grieves not only the shocking murder-suicide of her sister and parents but of her dying relationship and dying (and soon to be reborn) sense of self. A student of psychology herself, Dani's care-taking tendencies are obvious as she puts everyone else before herself to the point of having no ego strength, no boundaries, and no identity that is not in relation to others. Her relationship with Josh—himself a coward on many levels—is the definition of codependency as they shy away from fights and often apologize for each other's misgivings. Dani even gaslights herself and questions her own reality (forcing the audience to question our reality throughout the film). Truly it is a pitiful sight to watch: We feel sorry for Dani and her trauma, but foreshadowing already tips us off early on about the changes waiting to take place inside of her. Often dependent in nature, does Dani even exist if alone? This question explains her choice to find a new community, one that supports her unlike other people in her life, others who are now all gone.

Final critique: This is a visually stunning and emotionally gripping movie. It does not rely on musical cues or cheap scares by any means but rather uses striking visual after visual after visual to sink its way into the viewer's brain, pairing beautiful sights with more disturbing images and testing the audience insofar as what they are able to sit and watch. In the case of my crowded and mostly adolescent audience, the desire to react vocally to express even adjacent discomfort at some of the scenes and themes helped show just how rare and powerful Aster's critique of modern American masculinity vis a vis his inclusion of full frontal male nudity is in mainstream film. It was such a fun treat to watch a horror film that takes place primarily in bright—often blinding—light and does not rely on nighttime and shadows to show us the darker sides of humanity (especially following a film like Hereditary and its dark palette).

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 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!

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.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Gothika (2003)

GENERAL INFO:
Director: Mathieu Kassovitz
Studios: Dark Castle Entertainment, Warner Bros.
Starring: Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr., Charles S. Dutton, John Carroll Lynch, Penelope Cruz
Tagline: Because someone is dead doesn't mean they're gone.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, terror, psychological thriller, mystery, drama, ghost, supernatural, possession
Scare score: C+
Rating: B


Plot overview: Dr. Miranda Grey (Berry) is an intelligent, driven, and happy psychiatrist that relies on fact and logic to do her job. One night while driving home from the mental hospital in a thunderstorm, Dr. Grey narrowly avoids hitting a girl who is standing in the middle of the road. When she goes out to help, however, the girl seems to burst into flames and take over Miranda's body.   After Miranda comes to a while later, she is back in the mental hospital but as a patient. To her horror, she learns that her husband has been brutally murdered and that she is the primary suspect based on overwhelming physical and forensic evidence. With some supernatural help, Miranda must not only show that she's not crazy, but she must also prove her innocence... or someone else's guilt.

This movie is funny to me because I think I first caught the beginning of it when I was about 13. It's been over a decade, but I still was never able to finish it until recently (this movie used to be impossible to find online). When it was on TV one night in December, I dropped everything to watch it, and I'm glad I did.

Gothika might have a bad reputation, but I don't think it's a bad movie. It's very 2003 in nature, but I was extremely impressed by Halle Berry's performance. Like, legitimately– she does a good job in this film. She is supported by Robert Downey, Jr. who I generally like a lot as well. Penelope Cruz is also a stunner both in physicality and as an actress. Her career is very interesting, and it's fun to see her in a supporting role 2 years after a major movie like Blow. She's so fantastic in Almodóvar films; if you haven't seen Todo sobre mi madre and Volver I highly suggest you go watch them.

Anyway, this movie is pretty much just fun, filled with plenty of chills and thrills. I'm really pretty surprised that people don't like it. It's very dark, and if you look at the poster you'll get a good vibe for what the cinematography is like, sort of a blue black tone the whole time. There are some wildly frightening scenes thanks to invisible ghost forces, so that makes for some scares as well as awesome displays of physical acting. Mainly I am thinking of the shower scene and also when Berry is being tossed around that cell.

There's an enduring mystery here, as in most ghost films, and who doesn't love that? In fact, the strange blend of science and supernatural is fairly unnerving; we never know quite where this film is headed. Luckily there is enough stability due to steady acting and screenplay, that even when we are drowning in unanswered questions, we're not ready to give up on the movie. Things certainly are more than a little silly, both in plot and dialogue, but we're given enough action and delivery to keep up with Dr. Grey's roller coaster ride.

I did like when the plot takes a major turn towards the end. When the truth comes out, everything is flipped on its head, and suddenly the fear becomes so much darker and more real than ghosts and possession. Everyone wants to see their protagonist vindicated, especially after things get so gritty and sexual. I was very surprised with how dark the movie gets during these moments when the truth comes out about the other characters. You'll have to watch to find out!

There was some good gore in this film, which was just sort of the icing on the cake of what is otherwise a rapidly paced and sometimes confusing wild goose chase. Most of all, I like how Gothika had moments that sort of tied everything together and brought everything back down to a playing field that as an audience we could handle.

Final critique: You may have heard bad or mediocre things about this movie, but I say give it a chance. It's a fun flick to watch with friends, and it's easy to pause and take a break from if you want to go make popcorn or something. You may not be at the edge of your seat, but I think Gothika has a lot to it. All the plot twists are very exciting, so that along with the surprising terror both in lies and in truth make for a nicely rounded out if fanciful film.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Shining (1980)

GENERAL INFO:
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Studios: Peregrine Productions, Producers Circle
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall
Tagline: A Masterpiece of Modern Horror
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, psychological thriller, ghosts, haunting, possession, family drama
Scare score: B+
Rating: A-



While buckling down for the possible tornadoes last weekend, my cousin, her roommate, and I took advantage of the gloomy weather and overall creepy atmosphere to watch this gem.  I accepted the opportunity graciously, as it is rare for me to find friends who will sit through a horror movie.

Plot overview: Recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance (Nicholson) moves his wife, Wendy (Duvall), and son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), to the remote Overlook Hotel after being hired as the caretaker of the building and grounds while they are closed during the winter season.  We already know Danny has an "imaginary friend"/ psychic power that he does not fully understand; he believes the Overlook to house evil spirits.  As complete isolation and cabin fever begin setting in, Jack begins to hallucinate, seeing ghosts around the hotel.  He also begins to drink again, quickly turning into an unstable and violent alcoholic.  After Danny is hurt by a ghost (Room 237=scary), Wendy thinks that Jack has become abusive and/or they are not alone in the massive hotel.  This accusation causes Jack to finally crack, and he sets out to kill his family.  Cue all the evil spirits in the hotel breaking lose, elevators full of blood, dining rooms full of corpses, and the ever-iconic "Heeeeeeere's Johnny!" scene.

Fun facts: The term "shining" refers to the psychic ability that Danny posses to see into the future and communicate with other 'shiners' without speaking.  He learns about it from the hotel's head chef, who comes back to try and help the family after sensing Danny's calls for help.
King chose 217 as the evil room because he and his wife were staying in room 217 at the hotel that helped him create the idea for The Shining.  In the movie, this was changed to 237.

Adapted, of course, from the novel of the same name by the untouchable Stephen King, I think The Shining has become much more successful than anyone could have predicted at the time.  I did some research on this classic a few months ago, and from what I understand, Kubrick was so meticulous in his filming that it even caused Shelley Duvall to become physically ill and lose some hair!  Talk about scary.  Still, there's something to be said about all the fine details, which do add a great deal to this film which, in my opinion, moves rather slowly until all the events begin to culminate towards the end.

One of my favorite small details in the film, which I think really helps set in the nail-biting suspense, comes from all the scenes of Danny riding his trike around the hotel.  The change from the silence of the wheels on carpet to the sudden lull of the wheels on the hardwood is pretty unnerving.  Also, Danny's little-voice-inside-his-mouth-friend, Tony, is really frightening, and causes us to examine the line between cute imaginary friends from childhood and more real, psychological problems - or in Danny's case, a psychic power.  For a young, new child actor, Lloyd does an awesome job.  I almost forgot to mention how scary the changes between "chapters" at the beginning of the movie are.  Up until cabin fever starts setting in, the movie moves relatively slowly, but each time they change from, say, "The Job Interview" to the next section, there is a terrifying crash of music.  The suspense is really building up the whole movie.

I have always loved Shelley Duvall.  While I don't think she's ugly, she certainly has very creepy aspects about her demeanor that add a lot to her character even before her husband goes crazy.  She has a perfect face- wide eyes, spaced-out-teeth, pale skin, dark hair- when she has to act terrified.  Her voice is also pretty creepy: innocent and almost annoying with a high pitch and slight southern/midwestern twang, and there is certainly something slightly off about it.

Jack Nicholson is brilliant in this role.  He is so creepy looking, and the late 70's attire, lower middle class in a Colorado winter look does a lot.  I think one of the scariest scenes is when he is zoning out at his typewriter, with his chin down at his chest, his mouth hanging open, and his eyes fixed upward, out of his skull.  His quick temper is rather frightening and all-too-human up until the point we understand that he seems to be possessed.  He becomes, in his murderous state, a brute, masculine force, representing abuse and rage, that has to scare us as we watch him run around the hotel with an axe.

Final critique: Overall, this is a must-see horror movie.  The psychological aspect should be what gets us the most.  The ghosts are very scary and the makeup helps with that.  The two twins are terrifying even before we see the image of them covered in blood with an axe in their head.  The young/old woman evil spirit in Room 237 turns out to be so foul: just as Jack thinks he's about to get some it's revealed how she is actually a corpse with wet, rotting flesh *grossest scene in the film*.  The Overlook is just as important a character as any Torrance family member.  Her ugly, 70's decor; long, seemingly endless corridors; restricting and claustrophobic bedroom scenes; twisting kitchen and boiler room; and even wide open main spaces- the general emptiness of it all, is certainly an aspect we take away with us after seeing the movie.  Bound to give you nightmares, or you will otherwise find yourself thinking of the ghosts next time you're in a ski lodge, hotel, or home alone.  Definitely recommended for all horror movie watchers; those who scare easily should be able to handle this film if aptly warned before any scary scenes.

And, of course, who could forget that very last scene and all the questions it provokes?