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 TRIBES OF PALOS VERDES (2017)

November 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Since there is always “trouble in paradise”, perhaps living in paradise shouldn’t even be a life goal. There are certainly less expensive ways to enjoy a nice view than relocating the family from the frozen Midwestern leisure of Michigan to the ultra-rich, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses hypocrisy of Palos Verdes. Joy Nicholson’s 1997 book has been adapted for the screen by writer Karen Croner. Brothers Brendan Malloy and Emmett Malloy co-direct in what appears to be their feature film debut after 15 plus years of music-related videos, shorts and documentaries.

The Masons move into a cliff-side mansion in Palos Verdes. The breathtaking Pacific Ocean view is supposed to offset the homogenized exclusive suburbia punctuated with manicured lawns, freshly painted homes, and close-minded wealthy folks. That works for Phil (Justin Kirk), the cardiologist who does see this as paradise and hopes his family will feel the same. His wife Sandy (Jennifer Garner) is struggling with depression, and their twin 16 year old kids Medina (Maika Monroe) and Jim (Cody Fern) are personality opposites … he being the popular kid, while she is a loner.

Since we all know new curtains don’t fix a broken window, the fractured family is soon on full display. The dysfunction came along as part of their relocation and much of this can be traced to Sandy’s manic-depressive state. The stress-related fallout is ugly. Phil finds comfort in the arms of their Realtor (Alicia Silverstone), who scores a doctor to go along with her commission. This sends Sandy spiraling down the rabbit hole, as Jim starts experimenting with drugs, and Medina seeks peace on a surfboard that she procured through a most unusual negotiation.

Most of the story is told from Medina’s perspective, and Ms. Monroe excels. Her breakout role was a couple of years ago in IT FOLLOWS, and though she’s a bit too old to play a 16 year old, she is so talented and relatable that to whatever extent the movie works for you, it’s likely to be because of her. The way she handles the cold distance between she and her mother is heartbreaking, yet her sadness and frustration at being the only one recognizing the fall of brother Jim is truly devastating.

The ultra-angst is sometimes a bit too heavy, as is the over-use of slow-motion and the overbearing indie music (as you might expect from music video directors). Many will hail Jennifer Garner’s performance since it is so far removed from her usual grinning and lovable type, but I found her a bit too extreme and trying too hard. Despite these issues, the mystic draw of the sea makes perfect sense as Medina literally surfs the choppy waves of life. A threat of disaster is always on the cusp, and the filmmakers take full advantage of the contrasting beautiful setting. Finding our tribe is a key to life and we are privileged to follow along with rising star Maika Monroe’s fabulous performance.

watch the trailer:


THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017)

October 26, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. When we become a spouse and a parent, we immediately develop a mode of protection never before experienced. We would do anything possible to protect our kids and spouse – even die for them if necessary. One of the most gifted and imaginative filmmakers working today forces us to consider a terrifying scenario: what if we had to select one of our family members to die?

Yorgos Lanthimos delivered the most bizarre and interesting film of 2016 with THE LOBSTER. This time out he re-teams with co-writer Efthymis Filippou, although this story eschews the dark humor of their previous film, opting instead for a type of gut-wrenching psychological warfare we have not previously witnessed on screen.

The goal here is not to make the viewer uncomfortable. Mr. Lanthimos wants us downright miserable from the tension. This is obvious from the opening scene as Schubert accompanies a close-up look at open-heart surgery, and continues through the awkward conversations and speech patterns as we get to know the characters. A terrific Collin Farrell plays the surgeon Dr Steven Murphy. Nicole Kidman is his wife (also a doctor), and their kids Kim and Bob are played by Raffey Cassidy (TOMORROWLAND) and Sunny Sulgic, respectively. The wild card is Barry Keoghan (DUNKIRK) who plays Martin, the most charming and oddball stalker who is hell bent on revenge and retribution. Keoghan is quite brilliant in this most difficult role.

Beyond the psycho-revenge plot lies a story of survival and atonement, making for an excruciatingly unsettling time in the theatre. We feel the vice tightening on us as the tone shifts from uncertain awkwardness to dark sinister intentions. Director Lanthimos and his regular cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis are in perfect sync with the various harsh angles (high and low spiked with screeching violins) and the necessary tight shots to emphasize the uneasiness and confusion of the characters.

Alicia Silverstone is quite memorable in her one scene as Martin’s mother. Frustrated that her flirtations with Steven aren’t reciprocated, she belts out the year’s greatest line of dialogue: “I won’t let you leave until you’ve tried my tart!” Of course, we couldn’t expect sexual relations to be any closer to normal than the conversations, and Ms. Farrell and Ms. Kidman ensure this to be so. Truly at the peak of the acting profession, Ms. Kidman has never shied away from tough material or less-than-ideal characters. Her strength and determination come through in every scene here, and it’s her scene at Martin’s home where she really puts her stamp on the film.

As difficult as it is to describe the film without giving anything away, one thing is certain – it’s a horror film. It’s difficult to imagine a more frightening scenario than what shakes out here with touches of both SOPHIE’S CHOICE and THE DEER HUNTER, while also having nothing in common with those films. The film’s title comes courtesy of Euripides, and its suspenseful awkwardness at a level rarely seen. The next feature from Mr. Lanthimos (starring Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz) is due next year, and if the line was forming now, I’d be in it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

watch the trailer: