AGNES (2021)

December 9, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. William Friedkin’s 1973 movie THE EXORCIST, adapted from William Peter Blatty’s novel, shook the movie world at the time. It even garnered 10 Oscar nominations, winning two (Best Sound, Best Adapted Screenplay). Over the nearly 50 years since, there have been five sequels in the franchise, and it has inspired countless genre movies, including parodies and knock-offs. Writer-Director Mickey Reece and co-writer and frequent collaborator John Selvidge deliver a set-up that leads us to believe we are in for yet another faith-based horror film focusing on demonic possession. Instead, what follows is more like two distinct stories.

Hayley McFarland (THE CONJURING, 2013) plays the titular Sister Agnes, and her outburst during a group meal with her fellow nuns startles us, and leads the Mother Superior (Mary Buss) to request assistance from the Catholic Church to address what appears to be demonic possession of Agnes. Chosen for the mission are a contrasting oddball pair of priests. The young, full of faith, not yet ordained Benjamin (Jake Horowitz, THE VAST OF NIGHT), and the elder, cynical, soon-to-be-banished Father Donaghue (Ben Hall) are sent to administer the exorcism … a process that Father Donaghue views as a convenient “out” for the one suffering.

The priests arrive at the convent, making for an interesting and uncomfortable dynamic. The exorcism takes a nasty turn that stuns Benjamin and the nuns, and leaves Donaghue humiliated and damaged. Desperate for the right step, Father Black (Chris Browning), a celebrity priest, is called in, along with his strange and out-of-place chain-smoking travel partner. This attempt at dispensing the demon goes no better than the first, but it’s here where some will find a touch of dark humor and really get a sense of filmmaker Reece’s unconventional style of storytelling. Reece then shifts our attention and the film’s focus to Mary (Molly C Quinn, “Castle”), Agnes’s best friend in the convent. After the incidents with Agnes, Mary’s faith is shaken. She turns in her habit and heads out into the real world. The entire perspective shifts as we follow Mary’s attempt to find her place … searching for something to believe in while struggling to pay the rent, and fending off unwelcome advances and oddball co-workers.  

Mary’s naivety is not an asset to her in this new life, and she does connect with stand-up comedian Paul (Sean Gunn), who was once in a relationship with Agnes. The character of Paul injects yet another dimension here, but we never lose sight of what Mary is going through. The topics of power and faith stand out most as we work through the film. Those expecting a traditional horror movie may be disappointed after the first act, while those open to some dark humor may be rewarded.

In theaters and VOD beginning December 10, 2021

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THE FEAST (2021)

November 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s safe to say all seven deadly sins are on display in the first feature film from director Lee Haven Jones and screenwriter Roger Williams. In fact, by the time the end credits roll, it seems likely a few more sins have been added to the list. The film definitely serves as savage commentary on the attitudes of the elite class, especially the nouveau rich, while also scratching the itch of those who prefer their horror filled with creepy atmosphere.

We first glimpse Cadi (Annes Elwy, LITTLE WOMEN, 2017) as she staggers up to the front entrance of a home in the country. Looking wet and disheveled, Cadi is late for her gig as the help for a dinner party. Rarely speaking and often staring blankly at family members through mysterious occurrences, Cadi works with Glenda (Nia Roberts), the lady of the house, to prepare the three-course meal. We know something is off with Cadi and her ominous presence, but this is no normal family she’s contracted with. Glenda’s husband Gwyn (Julian Lewis Jones) is a Member of Parliament and the kind of guy who boasts about shooting the two rabbits on that evening’s menu … despite the fact that we know he didn’t. Their two sons are Guto (Steffan Cennydd), a guitar-playing drug addict who has recently moved back home after an overdose in London; and Gweiryydd (Sion Alun Davies), an odd young man training for a triathlon and enjoying his own spandex a bit too much.

The house itself is also a character. Stark, cold and modern, and displaying abstract art that represents the local land, it seems quite out of place on the farmland. So we have a house that doesn’t belong, a dysfunctional family that’s out of place, and Cadi who is the biggest outlier of all. Things get more bizarre once the guests begin to arrive. Euros (Rhodri Meilir) is a shady agent/businessman who we learn has helped Gwyn and Glenda reach a new level of financial success by leasing out their farm land to companies drilling for resources. It turns out the dinner party is a ruse to get their neighbor Mair (Lisa Palfrey) to join in the newfound riches. We quickly note that Mair’s dress, demeanor, and reaction to Glenda’s showing off this lifestyle, puts the two families at odds. Mair’s husband’s delay in joining the party is a more important detail than originally thought.

This is a rare Welsh-language folk horror tale, and though it’s not lacking in blood, its best elements are the excruciatingly slow-burn beginning as suspense builds in regards to Cadi’s motives/powers/intentions. This haunting pace with chilling scenes and odd characters keep us in an anxious and unaware state for the first 2/3 of the movie. This is no modern day Cleaver family, and the sons are no Wally and Beaver. The nuanced approach allows us to build disgust towards the family and how they’ve exploited the land and other people for their own success, while also trying to interpret Cadi.

Going against nature is becoming a more frequent topic in films these days, and the payback is often harsh and unkind. Cinematographer Bjorn Bratberg expertly captures the interior and exterior moments, while composer Samuel Sim provides eerie background accompaniment. Lee Haven Jones has not taken a traditional approach to horror, and the creativity and atmosphere will likely be appreciated by many.

In theaters and On Demand beginning November 19, 2021

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BLACK FRIDAY (2021)

November 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. The horror-comedy genre boasts many movies that can be described as ‘a blast’ or ‘a wild ride’. Director Casey Tebo and writer Andy Greskoviak wisely jump on a topic that lends itself all too well to this genre: the whole mess we call Black Friday shopping. Ingeniously setting this in a toy store (“We Love Toys”), focusing on the stressed-out employees, and assembling what seems like the perfect cast, the filmmakers somehow come up short, due mostly to a paucity of effective one-liners and visual gags so necessary in a project like this.

Devon Sawa (FINAL DESTINATION, 2000) stars as Ken, the divorced father who is pained at having to drop his kids at his ex-wife’s house as he heads in for his Black Friday shift at the store. We are then introduced to others on the store staff, including Ivana Baquero (Ofelia in the Guillermo del Toro instant classic PAN’S LABYRINTH, 2006) as Marnie, Ryan Lee (SUPER 8, 2011) as germophobe Chris, Michael Jai White (SPAWN, 1997) as Archie the maintenance guy, and Stephen Peck as Bryan, the power-abusing Assistant Manager. Leading this group of misfits is the always-great Bruce Campbell (the EVIL DEAD franchise) as Jonathan, the Store Manager and corporate lackey.

In an early scene we hear a TV newscast that forewarns of an upcoming meteor event, and the science fiction element involves a gooey alien creature/substance that causes even more turmoil than the shortages of this year’s must-have toys. Shoppers are transformed into zombie-flesh-eating-alien-mutants, and the toy store staff teams up in an effort to stay alive. All of the actors do their part. Sawa is effective as the leader, while Baquero lends a strong female presence. White is the epitome of a nail-gun toting action hero, and Campbell delivers his comic force while donning a bow-tie and cardigan. The special effects work, and the only thing missing are searing and cutting quips and one-liners that would complete the picture.

ZOMBIELAND (2009), PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES (2016), THE DEAD DON’T DIE (2019), READY OR NOT (2019), and the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy are all films in this genre that actually delivered what this one should have … what it teased. One Air Supply joke and a riff on corporate greed and out-of-control entitled holiday shoppers was a tremendous idea that would have benefitted from more humorous social commentary. It’s a letdown that may yet find a place the Midnight Movie slot.

Available in theaters and On Demand beginning November 19, 2021

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LAST NIGHT IN SOHO (2021)

October 28, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Every once in a while a movie captures that magic feeling of being swept away, and this wild film from writer-director Edgar Wright and co-writer Kristy Wilson-Cairns (1917) did just that for me. This is my kind of psychological-horror-thriller and with the exception of one sequence that went a bit too “slasher” for my tastes, I had a blast watching it. I’ll admit that, while also acknowledging more people will probably not enjoy this, than will. But for those who do, I feel confident they will share my enthusiasm.

Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie, JOJO RABBIT, 2019) opens the film by expressively dancing to Peter & Gordon’s “A World Without Love” while sporting a self-designed dress made of perfectly creased newspaper. Her room is filled with 1960’s colors and memorabilia and we soon learn she’s an orphan raised by her grandmother (Rita Tushingham, A TASTE OF HONEY, 1961). Eloise, or Ellie as she’s called, dreams of following her mother’s path to London, and is thrilled beyond measure when her acceptance letter arrives from the London School of Fashion. Ellie does carry the burden (and visions) of her mother’s mental illness, and her grandmother warns, “London can be a lot.”

Small town (Cornwall) Ellie with her timidity and wide-eyed innocence arrives in London and is immediately the target of ‘mean girl’ and fellow student Jocasta (Synnove Karlsen). Rather than subject herself to the abuse, Ellie sublets an attic room from an old lady landlord named Mrs. Collins (the last screen appearance for the great Diana Rigg). Ellie loves the room and her independence, but her dreams act as a portal back to those swinging 60’s of which she’s so fond. But that’s only the beginning. It’s here where she follows/becomes Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), and the mirror effects are truly other-worldly. Sandie is everything that Ellie wishes she was herself – confident, radiant, ambitious, and beautiful. This dream state allows Ellie to live vicariously through Sandie. At least initially.

The Ellie-Sandie sequences mess with your head in a wonderful way. Sandie seems to float across the club’s dance floor, and Ellie is mesmerized at first, before turning protective. The tone shifts when Sandie meets sleazy Jack (Matt Smith), a would-be agent who promises to get Sandie the shot at stardom she desires. This leads to ATJ’s amazing and breathy version of Petula Clark’s “Downtown”. It’s a standalone highlight of the film, and a moment that shifts the story yet again. If you are struggling to keep pace, you’re not alone.

Soho’s glamour is matched only by its grunge. The recurring dreams turn to nightmares, so that even Ellie’s waking hours are surreal. A mysterious elderly gent played by Terence Stamp may be the key to the mystery Ellie’s so busy trying to solve that she is oblivious to the romantic overtures by nice guy John (Michael Ajao). The nostalgia of the 60’s provides a visual treat with the Café de Paris, a massive theater marquee advertising James Bond’s THUNDERBALL, and Cilla Black’s “You’re My World”.

Filmmaker Wright gives us so much to discuss, but it’s crucial that the best parts not be spoiled. Just know that Oscar winner Steven Price (GRAVITY, 2013) provides an incredible mix of music, while Chung-Hoon Chung’s cinematography, Marcus Rowland’s Production Design, and Odile Dicks-Mireaux’s costumes all nearly steal the show. But of course, that can’t possibly happen thanks to the stupendous performances from Anya Taylor-Joy and (especially) Thomasin McKenzie. These are two of the finest young actors working today, and we will be fortunate to watch their careers develop.

Edgar Wright is having quite a year. He’s already delivered the terrific documentary, THE SPARKS BROTHERS, and now comes what is his best work yet. You may know his work on BABY DRIVER (2017) or the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy that kicked off with SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004). Here, he playfully bounces between genres serving up time travel, a murder mystery, the Soho history, a memorable soundtrack, surreal dream and ghost sequences, a touch of romance, and that previously mentioned ‘slasher’ scene. A final tip of the cap to Diana Rigg, whose career spanned her role as Emma Peel in “The Avengers” (from the 60’s), her time as a Bond girl in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969), and ultimately as Olenna Tyrell in “Game of Thrones”.

Opens in theaters on October 29, 2021

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ANTLERS (2021)

October 28, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. I’m sure Scott Cooper is a well-adjusted, happy guy. At least I hope so. However, if he were to be judged only by his movies, we would assume the man is humorless and focused on serious topics only. He’s also extremely talented as a filmmaker, as evidenced by CRAZY HEART (2009), OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013), BLACK MASS (2015), and HOSTILES (2017). This latest is his first monster movie, and again – no happy thoughts, despite the expert craftsmanship. Mr. Cooper co-wrote the script with Henry Chiasson, and Nick Antosca’s, adapting Antosca’s short story, “The Quiet Boy”.

There is a lot to take in with this one: Native American legend, child abuse, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, economic woes, strained family relationships, and yes, a violent monster. Keri Russell (“The Americans”) stars as Julia Meadows, who has returned to her hometown to teach school. She left 20 years ago due to an abusive father, and still carries the guilt of leaving her younger brother in that situation. Trying to mend their relationship, she has moved in with him. Paul (Jesse Plemons, I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS, 2020) is the reluctant town Sheriff who doesn’t say much, but carries out his thankless responsibilities in a dutiful manner.

We witness Frank Weaver (Scott Haze, OLD HENRY, 2021) in his meth lab hidden deep in a coal mine, while his youngest son Aiden (Sawyer Jones) waits in the truck outside. In a terrific scene, filmed brilliantly, Frank discovers what else is hiding in the mine, and it changes things forever. Julia teaches Frank’s older son Lucas (Jeremy T Thomas), and immediately hones in on him as a kid with all the signs of being abused. And it turns out, Lucas does get bullied by a Scut Farkus lookalike played by Cody Davis, and Lucas’ art work leaves little doubt things aren’t going well in his life.

What we soon learn is that Lucas is carrying a burden that no one should have to. Julia’s history plays a role in pushing a school administrator (Amy Madigan) to investigate his home life. Filmmaker Cooper has created a perfectly oppressive atmosphere, and there are some terrific elements – including the performances of Keri Russell and young Jeremy T Thomas. However, at times, it feels like the story strains to include all the messages it’s trying to deliver. Proof of that comes in the form of Graham Greene (WIND RIVER, 2017) and his role as the former sheriff. His appearance is too brief and he seems to have drawn the short straw as the character having to spell things out for the audience – the Native American legend of Wendigo, and how the spirit has been awoken by man’s destruction of nature.

Florian Hoffmeister’s cinematography is top notch and captures small town life in rural Oregon, as well as the monster moments. Composer Javier Navarrete is to be commended. His score never overwhelms, as happens so frequently in horror films. The film is produced by horror master Guillermo Del Toro, and his fingerprints are evident. The loose mythology and heavy-handed lessons for mankind are salvaged by the terrific practical effects and gloomy atmosphere. Director Cooper has delivered again, though this may not be his natural genre.

Opens in theaters October 29, 2021

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GHOSTS OF THE OZARKS

October 27, 2021

Austin Film Festival 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Most mothers tell their kids, “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.”  Young Doctor James McCune (Thomas Hobson) has decided to take up the offer from his Uncle Matthew (Phil Morris, who “Seinfeld” fans will recognize as outrageous attorney Jackie Chiles), and become the town doc in North Fork. The year is 1866, and after an eventful trip that sets us up for a horror film, James arrives to find one of the earliest ‘gated communities’.

Upon arriving, two things stand out to James. First, it seems all of the North Fork citizens know his name and have been waiting on him to show up. Second, he’s fascinated by the sight of a mixed-race community living in harmony. His bright-eyed awe shows his wondering whether this this some type of Utopian society? Not long after he realizes his Uncle Matthew holds the power position in town, James begins to notice the cracks in the façade of his new found paradise.

The town’s characters are quite a bunch to behold. Torb, the multi-talented blind barkeep is played by the always-fun Tim Blake Nelson (recently seen in OLD HENRY). Tara Perry (the film’s co-writer and wife of co-director Jordan Wayne Long) plays sharp-shooting Annie, not one for putting up with much drama. Her rather large, protective brother William is played by Joseph Rudd, while Angela Bettis as Lucille and David Arquette as Douglas play normal and annoying – I’ll leave it to you to discern which is which.

From one seed an entire forest can grow” is the film’s opening quote, and it takes on an entirely different meaning as the story progresses. A gathering red fog indicates the menacing ghosts are present, but are the forest ghosts the real threat? Co-directors Jordan Wayne Long and Matt Glass, along with co-writers Long, Sean Anthony Davis and Tara Perry have adapted their 2016 short film into a ghastly fun feature, with Mr. Hobson and Ms. Perry reprising their roles. As we’ve learned power plays come in many forms, and sometimes legends are used to distract from the truth. Thanks to this film, I have a new guideline: any movie that features Tim Blake Nelson singing with an Irish accent is automatically worth watching.

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LAMB (2021, Iceland)

October 8, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. The opening sequence is surreal and a bit creepy, and with it, first time director Valdimar Johannsson accomplishes a couple of things. First, we witness the rugged beauty of rural Iceland, and second, he sets us up for a bizarre tale, as we follow a heavy-breathing unseen creature (or being) that frightens some wild horses before making its way into the sheep pen. Johannsson co-wrote the script with Sjon, the renowned Icelandic novelist, poet, screenwriter, songwriter, and composer.

Noomi Rapace (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, 2009) stars as Maria, and we watch as she and her husband Ingvar (Hilmer Snaer Gudnason) work their remote sheep farm mostly in silence. There seems to be no joy and little connection between them as they go about their chores and duties. The seasons pass until its time for the sheep to give birth (as you might have guessed from the title). It’s at this point where I simply must be careful about what I write, as the less one knows about this one going in, the more effect it’s likely to have. Personally I knew nothing ahead of time, and had not even watched the trailer. Because of that, this easily rates as one of the most bizarre movies I’ve ever watched.

Remember the old margarine commercial, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature”? Well, Maria and Ingvar interpret one strange occurrence as “a gift” from nature and the key to their re-discovered happiness. When Ingvar’s troubled brother Petur (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson) shows up, his first question is “WTF is this?” That’s as close to a spoiler as I’ll come here, but there are multiple interpretations to be had: the power of nature, loneliness, the challenges and rewards of parenting, commentary on those who treat their pets as kids, and the devastation of grief followed by the hope of redemption.

There are moments of irony with wool sweaters and entrée selections, as well as some dark humor in regards to bath time, an observant cat, a loyal and smart dog, and one specific irked ewe. This is a remote farm in rural Iceland and the setting adds to an already unorthodox story … one which is pulled from Icelandic folklore. Johannsson is to be commended for his initial work. It easily could pass as a project from the creative mind of Yorgos Lanthimos (THE LOBSTER) or Robert Eggers (THE WITCH). In fact, the film’s co-writer, Sjon, is also writing Eggers next film, THE NORTHMAN, slated for April 2022.

Beyond the setting, the atmosphere, and bizarre aspects of the story, what makes it work is how the characters play it straight. These aren’t talkative folks and we believe they could exist in this environment. Ms. Rapace delivers a strong performance, and that shocking ending reminds us not to mess with nature.

A24 is releasing the film in theaters beginning October 8, 2021

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OLD (2021)

July 23, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) and UNBREAKABLE (2000) created a movie bond with filmmaker M Night Shyamalan that will always exist. In other words, I continue to go into each of his projects with hopeful expectations of another classic. Of course, some have been pretty good (SPLIT, 2016), while others are barely watchable (THE LAST AIRBENDER, 2010). His latest lands somewhere in the middle, but does feature a stunning beach setting (Dominican Republic) – one whose tropical beauty hides a sinister reality.

The film’s synopsis is captured in the trailer: tourists experience a mystifying and terrifying phenomenon while on a day trip to a gorgeous secluded beach. The director adapted the film from the 2010 graphic novel “Sandcastle”, written by Pierre-Oscar Levy and Frederick Peeters. Shyamalan specializes in one thing: big and creative ideas. He is a risk-taking filmmaker, but one not always focused on execution, coherence, or details. Especially awkward here is the dialogue. None of these characters talk like real people. Lending to the awkwardness is the attention given to each character’s name and occupation … except for the kids, where age is the significant data.

Due to the nature of the story (and the effects of the beach), the cast is significantly larger than the number of characters. We ride along with one family as they first approach the luxury resort. Insurance actuary Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his wife, museum curator Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are vacationing with their 11 year old daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and 6 year old son Trent (Nolan River). The couple clearly have a strained relationship and appear headed for a break-up. Encouraged by the resort manager to spend the day at a secret remote beach, they are joined by Charles (Rufus Sewell), a surgeon, his calcium-deficient trophy wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), their young daughter Kara, and the doctor’s elderly mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). Another couple is there as well, nurse Jarin (Ken Leung) and his wife Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a psychologist. Already at the beach when they arrive is rap star Mid-sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), replete with bloody nose and the corpse of the woman who accompanied him.

It’s best not to go into specifics about the progression of things for these folks on the beach, but it can be noted that they frantically try to find a way back to the resort. When all attempts prove unsuccessful, that ridiculous dialogue fills in many of the gaps for us, though you should know the science doesn’t hold up … think of it as fantasy instead. As their day at the beach moves forward, other actors take over: Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie are teenage Trent and Maddox, Eliza Scanlen is Kara, and later, Emun Elliott and Embeth Davidtz become Trent and Maddox. It becomes frustrating for viewers as the professions are emphasized: Guy spouts statistics at every turn, Prisca discloses she’s not a pathologist, and Patricia attempts to get everyone to bring their feelings to group. Ugh.

Despite the many missteps and the overall mess of characterizations, Shyamalan (who also appears as the driver who drops them at the beach) does serve up a creative idea – one that will likely get viewers questioning their own mortality and how best to spend time. Mental illness is addressed in a crude manner with Rufus Sewell (a fine actor) bearing the brunt of a poor script, while physical afflictions and the effects of age come off a bit better. The strange looking woman serving up custom cocktails at the resort is Francesca Eastwood (Clint’s daughter), and Shyamalan’s patented plot twist ending does make sense and even has a contemporary feel to it.

Opening in theaters on July 23, 2021

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CENSOR (2021)

June 10, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Will Hayes is likely the only film censor most movie buffs can name, and it’s been more than ninety years since the “Hays Code” first went into effect. Despite the relative obscurity of the profession, the first feature film from Prano Bailey-Bond, places censor Enid Baines (Niamh Algar, WRATH OF MAN, 2021) at the forefront of a prime midnight movie … a horror film about horror films. Ms. Bailey-Bond has adapted her own short film NASTY (2015) with the help of co-writer Anthony Fletcher, and for the most part, the changes work quite well.

The story is set in 1985 when “video nasties”, the U.K. label for slasher films, were at the peak of their popularity thanks to the convenience of VHS tapes. Many argued these films, typically independent and low budget productions, were influential in allowing sadistic violence to seep into society. As a film censor, Enid (an excellent Algar), who dresses and carries herself like a 1950’s librarian, is responsible for making sure the fictional violence on screen doesn’t cross the line of what’s acceptable and clearly fictional. Enid takes her job extremely seriously and is annoyed when people mistakenly assume she is in “entertainment”. For Enid, it’s all about protecting the public.

Bailey-Bond jams a lot into 84 minutes … much more than most horror films attempt. Enid’s backstory, and really the driving force for the film, involves her sister’s disappearance when they were kids. It remains an unsolved mystery, and Enid often suffers flashbacks and dream sequences – none more vivid than when one of the movies she’s watching triggers hope of resolution and a mash-up of fiction and reality. This kicks the movie into a different gear, as we are no longer caught up in Enid’s stress censoring movies, but rather in her desperate search to solve the mystery of her sister.

Multiple sub-plots (or at least story lines) exist, including Enid’s strained relationship with her parents – with an underlying theme of blame – and a real world tragic event that may implicate Enid’s work. At play throughout is the existence of violence against women, and Michael Smiley (FREE FIRE, 2016) portrays a sleazy producer whose actions are likely similar to many in the mid-80’s. Much of the third act is surreal as Enid crosses over onto the set of director Frederick North’s (Adrian Schiller) latest movie after she sees a possible connection to her sister in North’s previous film “Don’t Go in the Church”. The production design by Paulina Rzeszowska (SAINT MAUD) and the cinematography of Annika Summerston are noteworthy. With Enid wielding both a pen and an axe, the film is a bit deranged and disorienting, but a nice fit for the midnight movie crowd.

In theaters June 11, 2021

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SAINT MAUD (2021)

May 24, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. This feature film debut from writer-director Rose Glass made the festival rounds beginning in 2019 and, like so many films, had it’s opening delayed due to COVID. So even though it officially opened in February, I’m just now getting around to seeing it.

Morfydd Clark (THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD, 2019, and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, 2016) stars as Maud, a nurse relieved of her duties at a hospital after a tragedy. She’s a recent convert to Roman Catholicism from a more free-spirited lifestyle, and is now convinced God not only speaks to her, but also periodically enters her body. Maud takes a new job as an in-home palliative care nurse for Amanda (Jennifer Ehle, ZERO DARK THIRTY, 2012), a former popular dancer/choreographer who resides in a large British seaside home as she waits for the terminal cancer to do what it does.

As Amanda chain smokes, guzzles booze, and entertains guests (both intimately and socially), Maud becomes more committed to saving Amanda from herself so that she might have everlasting peace in her soon-to-come death. Though initially enchanted by Maud’s pious dedication, Amanda ultimately rejects Maud’s role as savior in a most public and humiliating manner. This not only costs Maud her job, but kicks her into a faith-questioning, pain/penance/sacrifice mode that is painful to watch. We’ve witnessed her in a near-orgasmic state as God takes over, and now we see the solitude and extreme loneliness of a lost soul seeking direction. Is she possessed?  If so, by which “side”? If not, is she a religious zealot or is she mentally ill … is there even a distinction between the two?  Maud’s two different eye colors lend credence to two sides battling for control.

In addition to Ms. Glass’ screenplay and direction and terrific imagery, cinematographer Ben Fordesman contributes strong work with extreme close-ups of Ms. Clark, as well as creative shots of Amanda’s house that succeed in turning it into a character – a house on the hill that’s not the haunted one. The score from Adam Janota Bzowski adds just the right atmosphere to the uneasy feeling we have around Maud. The supporting cast includes Lily Frazier as Carol, Amanda’s online hook-up, and Lily Knight as Joy, Maud’s friend and former co-worker.

We are initially led to believe this is a story about the unlikely connection between Maud and Amanda, but in fact, this is Maud’s story and no one else’s. Has she been chosen as God’s disciple, or is she losing her mind? Filmmaker Rose, whether intentionally or not, seems influenced by some fine films, including: William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST (1973), Scott Derrickson’s THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005), and two projects from Paul Schrader – TAXI DRIVER (1976) and FIRST REFORMED (2017). The inclusions of William Blake’s religious paintings contribute to this as an example of the feelings non-believers have towards the overly religious and their often accompanying hypocrisy. Morfydd Clark’s performance is top notch, and this is arthouse spiritual horror at its finest … certainly not for the masses, but sure to tickle the fancy of a few.

Currently streaming on Amazon Prime

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