THE HUNT (2020)

March 12, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Let’s face it. It was a brilliant marketing strategy. In the wake of mass shootings, the release date of this film was delayed when its subject matter was deemed controversial, even scandalous The film’s new marketing slogan became, “The most talked about movie of the year is one that no one’s actually seen.” Of course, it wasn’t really true, as very few were actually talking about it. But that’s what made it genius marketing … they created interest amidst controversy that has since proven unnecessary. Director Craig Zobel (Z FOR ZACHARIAH, 2015) has delivered the least controversial, non-polarizing film of the year. It basically laughs at extremes on the left and right, and reminds us how laughing at something can often take away its power. And regardless of your “side”, you’ll find some laughs here.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you know that the premise has a group of liberal elites hunting a hand-selected group of social media-active MAGA deplorables. It’s a twist on Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game”, although the modern day rich aren’t hunting for sport, but rather for political affiliation – gun lovers and climate change deniers. That may sound politically charged, but in fact, it plays as more comedy than comeuppance. Sure, the violence is over-the-top and often quite graphic, but this is a skewering of both red and blue.

Preventing the project from falling into B-movie muck is a standout performance from Betty Gilpin (“Glow”) as Crystal. She’s a Rambo-type who speaks (with a southern drawl) only when necessary, and seems to have learned a lot while serving in Afghanistan. Most of the time she looks like she has “a pinch between her cheek and gum” (a tip of the Stetson to Walt Garrison), and she also hums to herself and tosses down some unusual facial expressions. This is a seriously oddball performance that is the film’s highlight.

One of the best sequences of the film comes quite early as the dozen or so ‘deplorables’ slowly wake-up and find themselves gagged in a field. A container of weapons leads to an early massacre that allows the filmmaker to tease us with numerous familiar faces taking turns as the heir-apparent lead. Some of the faces that pop up include Ike Barinholtz, Wayne Duvall, Ethan Suplee, Emma Roberts, Christopher Berry, Sturgill Simpson, Kate Nowlin, Amy Madigan, Reed Birney, Glenn Howerton, Hannah Alline (flight attendant), and Usman Ally.

Of course we know this is headed to a showdown between Crystal and Athena (2-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank), the ringleader of the hunting party. A fight scene reminiscent of the KILL BILL movies (sans Samurai swords) takes place at Athena’s “manor”, and it is stunningly staged and executed. Unfortunately this scene also highlights the mostly inadequate dialogue that exists throughout the film. Some of the quips click, but many fall flat – surprising since the co-writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof have previously collaborated on “Watchmen” and “The Leftovers.”

Blumhouse Productions keeps cranking out these offbeat genre films, and this one likely benefits from a misplaced scandal, and it strives for self-importance by comparing itself to George Orwell’s “Animal House” and with an obscure reference to TEARS OF THE SUN (2013). It’s not at the level of last year’s gem READY OR NOT, and it missed the opportunity to make some political points, but it’s a hoot to watch and as an added bonus, Hilary Swank teaches us the proper way to make a grilled cheese sandwich!

watch the trailer:


THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020)

February 27, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. I got hooked on “Monster” movies as a kid, and even all these years later, I still get a kick out of them. Of course, with today’s special effects, the look of these films is much different than in the early days. The big challenge for the genre now isn’t how to frighten us or create an awe-inspiring effect, but rather can it capture the charm and appeal of those ground-breaking B-movies? Universal Studio’s Dark Universe got off to a less-than-stellar start with Tom Cruise’s 2017 THE MUMMY. Now, after re-grouping, the fabled Monster studio re-boots THE INVISIBLE MAN … with roots in H.G. Wells’1897 sci-fi novel and the Claude Rains – James Whale film from 1933.

Perhaps their best decision was choosing Leigh Whannell to write and direct. I’m hesitant to mention that Mr. Whannell was a creative writing force behind both the SAW and INSIDIOUS franchises, as some may jump to conclusions on what to expect with this latest. All I can say is that you’d be incorrect to assume THE INVISIBLE MAN falls in line with those previous films. Instead, this film is a psychological thriller in the form of #MeToo vengeance. Whereas the 1933 film featured a brilliant scientist whose invention turned him sour, this contemporary version is told from the viewpoint of a woman who has been abused and controlled by her boyfriend.

When we first see Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), she is sneaking out of her stunning cliffside home while her boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) sleeps. Within just a few minutes, Ceclia’s escape has taken us on a tour of the home (including a high-tech laboratory), disclosed that she has drugged Adrian, introduced us to her sister Alice (Harriet Dyer), and above all, given us a glimpse at just how terrorized Cecilia feels. The sequence is complemented by a nerve-jarring score from composer Benjamin Wallfisch (BLADE RUNNER 2049).

We flash forward two weeks and find Cecilia taking refuge at a friend’s home, and she remains so paranoid, she is barely able to step outside. As the old saying goes, ‘is it paranoia if they are really after you?’ Her friend is James (Aldis Hodge, CLEMENCY), a stout no-nonsense cop and single dad raising teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid, A WRINKLE IN TIME). When it’s discovered that Adrian has committed suicide and, according to Adrian’s creepy attorney brother Tom (Michael Dorman), left millions to Cecilia, she allows herself to celebrate the moment. However, what fun would it be watching her spend and give away money? Instead, the tone shifts and Cecilia’s life becomes unbearable as she is convinced dead/invisible Adrian is torturing her. As you can imagine, this leads to questions about Cecilia’s mental stability, which then leads to more misery and tragedy.

Director Whannell’s brilliant approach and Ms. Moss’ superb performance combine to make this a thrill ride worth taking … it’s the kind where some folks in the audience shout warnings to the characters on screen! It’s difficult to tell which is more frightening, having everyone you know think you have lost your mind, or actually being stalked by an invisible, presumed-dead former abuser who wants you to suffer. Floating knives and physical fights are unsettling, but can’t compare to the tension created by cinematographer Stefan Duscio turning his camera to a blank wall or empty space. Our mind (and Ms. Moss’s face) fill in the gaps with Adrian’s evil presence. This is not a scientist-gone-bad, but rather a madman utilizing his most powerful tool. Having Adrian be an Optics innovator was a contemporary twist that takes us from the science fiction of the 1930’s to the technological world of modern day.

The film was originally going to star Johnny Depp, but it works so much better, and is so much more terrifying, having it told through the eyes of Ms. Moss’ Cecilia. Strangely enough, the movie I kept flashing back to was not the 1933 Claude Rains and Gloria Stuart (64 years later, she played reminiscing Rose in TITANIC) movie directed by the great James Whale, but rather the schlocky 1991 Julia Roberts film SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY. This is the most fun kind of movie suspense, and what’s scarier than the things we can’t see? It’s nice to have Universal Studios’ monsters back on track, and we have talented filmmaker Leigh Whannell to thank for this “Surprise!

watch the trailer:


THE LODGE (2020)

February 13, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Should you ever get cast as the stepmother in a horror movie, just know things aren’t likely to go well for your character. That even holds true for the stepmom-to-be in this latest from the writer-director team of Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz who delivered GOODNIGHT MOMMY (2014). Their script comes from an idea by writer Sergio Casci, and it starts with a bang!

Richard (Richard Armitage) has planned a Christmas holiday trip to an isolated cabin in the woods so his two kids can get to know his fiancé Grace. Of course, his kids blame Grace for the break-up of their family, and the subsequent tragedy that befalls their mother. Aidan (Jaeden Martell, IT) and Mia (Lia McHugh) take advantage of Google to discover that Grace is the sole survivor of a cult’s mass suicide (similar to Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate). As if that’s not enough, Richard gets called back to the city for work (what??) and then a massive snow storm hits the cabin just after the power and water are cut-off. Finally, Grace’s meds for sanity disappear, along with most of the clothes.

So we have a snow-covered cabin deep in the woods with two kids stranded with a quasi-stepmom that they don’t like. And yes, there’s a cute pet dog. We also have more religious images and ornamentation than anyone who is not the Pope should have in their home. On top of everything, there is a large dollhouse that often factors in to what we see on screen and to what the kids and Grace are going through. And it’s Christmas! In other words, there is no shortage of elements necessary for a quality horror film.

I much prefer creepy over slasher for horror films, and this one easily meets that standard. Rather than a slow burn, it’s a slow freeze. Unfortunately, the actions of the characters and the script just didn’t work for me. The tormenting that goes on was not believable, and I just never could get over the fact that dad left these people who didn’t even know each other, together in the middle of nowhere while he went back to work. As a rule of thumb (or red flag), when a character expresses their theory about unexplained occurrences in a horror movie, you can be fairly certain that the theory is incorrect, or at least misleading, even if it’s what you were already thinking.

On the bright side, Riley Keough (daughter of Elvis Presley’s daughter) gives a terrific performance as Grace. She is very effective in keeping us guessing as to her true colors – is she a creepy monster or is she being victimized? Also, the film has a very stylish look. The cinematographer is Thimios Bakatakis (THE LOBSTER), and the cabin and nature setting give him plenty to work with. Other bright spots include a very brief appearance from Alicia Silverstone, and the opening credits logo of the resurrected Hammer Films (a favorite of monster movie fans). I caught this at the inaugural North Texas Film Festival in 2019, and it will surely strike a chord with some horror movie lovers … even though it left me out in the cold.

watch the trailer:


THE HOST (2020)

January 16, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The success of Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story” has inspired many writers and filmmakers to dive headfirst into the genre. The results have been mixed – some really creative works, and some ho-hum copycats. What has been interesting to watch is the genre-bending (or stretching) when what traditionally would have been a suspenseful drama or thriller, has elements of horror added to spice things up. That’s my best lead-in for director Andy Newbery’s film based on a story by Laurence Lamers, and adapted for the screen by Lamers, Finola Geraghty, Brenda Bishop, and Zachary Weckstein.

Sixty years ago this would have fit right in as an episode on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, even down to the bookend therapy sessions led by the fine British actor Derek Jacobi as Dr. Hobson. He tells his patient (whose face we don’t see) that his is “an unusual and disturbing case.” We then ‘see’ the story unfold … or maybe unravel is a better description. Robert Atkinson (played by Mike Beckingham, younger brother of Simon Pegg) is a bank employee enjoying a lunch break tryst with a beautiful woman. Sarah (Margo Stilley, 9 SONGS) just so happens to be married to Robert’s boss, and she clearly has only one use for Robert since he has no money and his life is a mess.

It’s not long before we discover Robert has many vices: gambling, smoking, drinking, and of course, romping with married women. In a moment that can be attributed to a desperate attempt to legitimize his existence, Robert nabs a 50,000 pound cash deposit from a new bank customer and promptly heads over to his favorite gambling hall. Things don’t go well, and dumb-as-a-rock Robert is soon cutting a deal with Chinese cartel leader Lau (played by the always reliable Togo Igawa).

Robert’s deal sends him to Amsterdam, a city where many things can go wrong – and often do. Local resident Vera Tribbe (Maryam Houssouni) offers Robert a room in her mansion, and, as we expected, things don’t go well for him. Both the cartel and Robert’s brother Steve (musician Dougie Poynter) are on the trail to find out what happened to Robert. DEA Agent Herbert Summers (played by Nigel Barber and his silky voice) is also involved, and what we find is a whole bunch of ‘nothing good’ thanks to the creepy rich Tribbe family,

Familiar faces pop up throughout the film, yet it’s difficult to buy into the sense of dread when most of the characters are making the kind of dumb decisions that Geico riffed in their commercial about ‘the running car’ and hiding behind the chainsaws. The lessons are pretty simple. Don’t steal money. Don’t sleep with your boss’ spouse. Don’t agree to run an errand for the Chinese cartel … or any other cartel flavor. Only if you can overlook the cluelessness of the characters will you find some entertainment value here.

watch the trailer:


UNDERWATER (2020)

January 10, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The opening credits have an “X-Files” look and feel. Newspaper headlines and redacted reports zip by … in fact, the rapid cuts are so quick that very few viewers will be able to keep up. Even if you haven’t finished your Evelyn Woods speed-reading course, the gist is clear: there is a (very) deep-water drilling lab located 36,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. Yep, that’s almost 7 miles deep for the crew of 316, and some mysterious bad things may or may not be lurking. That’s really our only set-up … unless you want to count Kristen Stewart brushing her teeth.

It’s literally less than 5 minutes in when the rig is rocked by an explosion of some kind. We are told the structure is 70% damaged. The survivors are quickly identified. Nora (Ms. Stewart) and Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie) are together in the immediate aftermath. Nora is a mechanical engineer and computer whiz. They soon come across a co-worker buried in rubble. It’s wise-cracking TJ Miller and his (actual) stuffed bunny. Next up are the Captain (Vincent Cassel) and lovebirds Emily (Jessica Henwick) and Smith (John Gallagher Jr). With no time for early character development, we learn tidbits as their perilous journey hopefully leads them towards rescue. Of course anyone who has ever watched a movie can tell you, they won’t all make it. Maybe the 8 year old girl sitting in the row behind me wouldn’t know that … but no parent should take their 8 year old to a PG-13 movie that has “terror” in the parental warnings.

Director William Eubank and co-writers Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad create plenty of tension, danger and suspense. The movie is at its best when they let the moment speak. It’s the dialogue that is mostly cringe-worthy, as well as the predictable and unnecessary jump-scares. These people are stranded miles deep in the ocean and are running out of oxygen and options … and are being chased by something they can’t identify. The visual effects are successful in generating the environment of danger and claustrophobia.

It’s in the little things where the film falters. When we first see the Captain, he has his arm in a sling. He’s obviously injured. Once the bulky underwater suits are donned, his bad arm seems just fine … he’s even pulling one of the others with a rope! Nora makes a big deal about being the “smallest” of the group and volunteers to explore a narrow passage. The problem is that they are all wearing the same suits – a fact that should negate any advantage of Ms., Stewart’s slim, toned body. Lastly, the film has borrowed heavily from James Cameron’s classic ALIEN. In fact, it has been referred to as “Underwater Alien”. Of course, this film isn’t nearly as well-rounded or complete as that one … but then few are.

Mr. Eubank’s film is a sci-fi/horror mash-up, but it’s really more a survival thriller than science fiction or creature feature, although the sea creatures have their moments. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli does a nice job in keeping with the ‘play it straight’ approach, and his camera work is complemented by the electronic score from Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts. Ms. Stewart and her buzzed blond hair hold their own amidst the danger. A blatant lecture about how we are going places (deep sea) we shouldn’t go and doing things (drilling) we shouldn’t do is included for those who might not figure it out on their own, but mostly we spend our time trying to figure out how to survive the deep sea pressure with little oxygen and no escape pods. Just leave the 8-year olds at home.

watch the trailer:


THE SONATA (2020)

January 9, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. A throwback to 1970’s cinema is easy to appreciate, whether it was intended or nor. Writer-director Andrew Desmond’s debut feature film certainly serves up the feel and style of so many of those low-budget horror films I watched as a youngster (many, it seemed, featured the late Roddy McDowall). Mr. Desmond and co-writer Arthur Morin (also his first feature film screenplay) likely viewed some of those same films, as this one succeeds in capturing the same creepy tone.

For some, the music they create comes from their soul … it makes them who they are. For these musicians, their obsession and quest for perfection can be off-putting to others. In an early sequence, we see young violist Rose Fisher (Freya Tingley, “Once Upon a Time”) react to news of her father’s death by shrugging and stating she wants to continue with her recording session. See, Rose’s father deserted the family when she was a toddler, and the two never spoke again. Richard Marlowe (the late great Rutger Hauer) was an exciting and brilliant young composer when he chose to drop out and live as a recluse (think Salinger). He’s even compared to Pink Floyd founding member Syd Barrett. Rose chose to never use her genetics as a springboard to success; never even telling her manager Charles Vernais (Simon Abkarian, CASINO ROYALE) of the connection.

Rose visits Marlowe’s house, and before learning of the startling manner in which his life ended, she discovers his final composition locked away in a drawer … a violin sonata seemingly left for her to find. Neither Rose nor Charles recognize some of the non-musical symbols included on the sheet music, but it’s clear there are elements of genius in the piece. While Charles envisions piles of cash to be made by capitalizing on this situation, Rose sets about tracking down clues to the unknown symbols by exploring her father’s estate.

It should be noted that Marlowe’s “house” is actually the 19th century Cesvaine Palace, and it makes a wonderfully gothic setting for this story. This sub-genre of horror films is always best when the setting is a creepy old mansion/castle, and includes a mysterious housekeeper, other-worldly children, a leather-bound book of secrets, and a subterranean room (this one is beneath a chapel) with curious wall murals telling some forbidden legend of the occult. The only element missing here is vicious dog that pops up periodically.

The symbols lead to a French secret society, and in their own ways, both Rose and Charles learn that finishing Marlowe’s final piece will conjure the Anti-Christ. While Charles pursues greed, Rose pursues the music. Spoken words pale in comparison to the music Rose creates. Screen veteran James Faulkner appears as Sir Victor Ferdinand in a vital supporting role. While it’s a bit disappointing that the late, great Rutger Hauer has very little screen time, it’s quite enjoyable to watch Ms. Tingley carry the lead. Mr. Desmond filmed in Latvia, and delivers a film that fits quite nicely for those who enjoy the creepy throwback horror style.

watch the trailer:


THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019)

October 17, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The opening sequence plays like something from 1920’s era cinema. The chug-chug-chug of a boat slamming against the waves of an angry sea while birds flap and chirp alongside. We hear the wind and “feel” the severe ocean spray. Several minutes elapse before any word is spoken. Immediately noticeable is the nearly square aspect ratio … the rarely (these days) seen 1.19:1 frame, making the black and white images appear both surreal and ominous.

All of the above makes perfect sense when we realize this is writer-director Robert Eggers’ first feature film since his 2015 indie horror gem THE WITCH won dozens of festival awards. Mr. Eggers obviously has his own vision for projects, and his approach borders on experimental, eschewing conventional. He co-wrote this script with his brother Max, and evidently much was drawn from the actual journals of lighthouse keepers … something that is evident in the vocabulary and the effects of solitude.

4-time Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe stars alongside Robert Pattinson as the two men charged with a 4 week assignment of tending to a lighthouse. The film is set in 1890, and Dafoe plays Thomas Wake, the epitome of a salty old sea dog, replete with bad leg, hardcore Atlantic accent, and upside down pipe. Pattinson is Ephraim Winslow, the assistant Wickie, who faces non-stop demands from Wake, and initially maintains a quietness as he goes about his duties … what Wake calls the ‘doldrums.’ We learn little about either man’s past. For Wake, other than knowing his previous assistant went mad, the clue is when he mentions “13 Christmases spent at sea” costing him a family. For Ephraim, when Wake asks, “Tell me what’s a timberman want with being a Wickie?” we get some insight into Ephraim’s desired future.

Eggers has delivered the anti-buddy movie. It’s a bleak, slow-motion race to insanity caused by being isolated with only one other person … a person you aren’t fond of. Only this is not a director or a film content with showing two men stuck on a storm-battered rock, as they slip towards insanity. No, we viewers are forced to experience some of these same feelings – how much of what we see is actually happening? It’s mesmerizing and hypnotic, and the above-mentioned narrow screen aspect purposefully emphasizes the sense of confinement and claustrophobia.

With no color and only a couple of characters … OK, 3 if you count the mermaid …OK, 4 if you count the seagull … the film still manages to pound us with sensory overload. We can barely process all we are seeing, despite relatively minimal ‘typical’ action. The black and white images are mostly just various shades of gray, and sunshine is non-existent.  Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (THE WITCH) embraces the dreariness by allowing the fog, lanterns, candles, wind, rain, and harsh elements to become characters unto themselves. However, nothing is in sync with our two leads. Composer Mark Korven fills the many lapses in dialogue with sounds and tones we haven’t heard before, yet they fit perfectly here. This is also quite likely the first film to utilize farts and foghorns in harmony.

Director Eggers filmed this on Cape Forchu in Nova Scotia, and the extreme weather and less-than-welcoming terrain create quite the visuals – as do the faces of our two lead actors. Dafoe may never have chewed scenery so delightfully as he does here, and Pattinson starts slowly before delivering his best work – including a ferocious rant that is fascinating to watch and contrast to his character’s first meal with Dafoe. Is this a horror film? A fantasy? Macabre comedy? There is simply no way to describe this other than bizarre. It’s truly miserable cinema, and I loved every minute of it.

watch the trailer: