Archive for the Horror Category

It Comes at Night

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery, Thriller on June 15, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo it_comes_at_night_ver2_zpsckbwstrl.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgCall it psychological horror.  Call it wilderness survival.  Call it a post-apocalyptic tale of the unknown.  It Comes at Night is a bit of all of these things.  The production is assembled from cinematic components with which we are familiar.  It’s easy to think we have the story pegged and our expectations fall into line as to what we’re going to get.  But this drama innovates as it entertains.  It’s not predictable and that’s part of what makes this cleverly crafted piece of intensity so effective.

At its most elemental, It Comes at Night is a cabin-in-the-woods chronicle of survival. Paul, his wife Sarah and their teenage son Travis are holed up in the safe confines of a shack in the forest.  Meanwhile, some outside epidemic has had a devastating effect on the world as we know it.  Society has crumbled and it’s every man for himself.  The movie begins with Sarah’s father who has contracted the disease.  He is terminally ill.  The family has been forced to brutally put an end to his life in order to contain the threat.  It’s an unsettling way to begin a story, but it immediately establishes how dire circumstances have become.  The contamination is serious business and this family isn’t afraid to make some very harsh decisions.  Things grow more complicated when they encounter a man that has broken into their home.  Will (Christopher Abbott ) says he is searching for food for his wife Kim (Riley Keough ) and young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner).

Writer-director Trey Edward Shults is a filmmaker that is still finding his voice but he has presented a unified vision in both of his two features.  2016 saw the release of his debut Krisha.  That drama was about a woman being re-introduced to her family at Thanksgiving dinner after having struggled with addiction.  The narrative was emotional, claustrophobic, and unrelentingly uncomfortable.  Interestingly all of those descriptions apply to It Comes at Night as well.  Both are intimate accounts of human behavior.  In his new work, Shults isn’t really concerned with what is outside the cabin.  It’s what’s inside that counts. The production is photographed to highlight the dark and foreboding hallways in their little shack.  Although we are constantly reminded of the outside risk.  A red door, the only escape in or out, becomes an ominous motif of some unseen peril that lies out there.  

Human behavior is the focus.  Shults is fascinated with people and their conversations. The screenplay, which the director also penned, ratchets up the tension to the point where things become oppressive.  He assembles the composition like a play of human interactions.  The screenplay succeeds because of the believable work of the ensemble cast.  Actor Joel Edgerton is the most famous name.  He has the biggest role as Paul and he’s just as commanding a presence as you’d expect.  However up and coming actor Christopher Abbott (James White) is particularly noteworthy.  As the intruder that disturbs the safety of their world, he’s mysterious and vague in just the right way.  Also of note are Carmen Ejogo as Paul’s wife Sarah and Kelvin Harrison Jr. as their son Travis. They perfectly capture a palpable fear.  Our experience is heightened because we empathize with their unrelenting dread.

It Comes at Night is brilliantly constructed.  The mood is dire, barren, desolate.  As things get more intense, director Shults plays with perception, paranoia, and reality.  The saga is thrilling for his developing technique.  As in every movie, there’s a moment where the picture ultimately ends, the credits roll and the lights come up.  I sheepishly admit my immediate reaction was disappointment.  However, this is a film for discussion.  As I reflected on what I had seen, it gets clearer.  Director Trey Edward Shults has taken a visionary approach.  This is a thoughtful fable about humanity.  It’s about so much more than what is physically represented.

06-11-17

Alien: Covenant

Posted in Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller on May 19, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo alien_covenant_ver4_zpskj0mddqh.jpg photo starrating-2stars.jpgCut to the chase: Alien: Covenant is not a good movie.   Dear me though its failings are so diffuse, I don’t even know where to begin.  Let’s start with some fast facts: Covenant is a sequel to 2012’s Prometheus and is set 10 years later. Prometheus was an Alien prequel and this new production also details events that are supposed to have happened before that 1979 masterpiece. Alien was a nifty little horror gem that was brilliant in its focused simplicity to scare in style. It was unpretentious.  Conversely, Prometheus took the franchise into biological altering origins of life. I appreciated the attempt at something grander. However, Prometheus left audiences with more questions than answers and now Covenant struggles to further expand that storyline with more scientific mumbo jumbo as to why characters are doing what they’re doing and why things are the way they are.   Unfortunately with this installment, Ridley Scott exploits the admirable qualities of Prometheus to ill effect.  Perhaps a little heady thought was welcome, but now he’s gone full tilt into a philosophical consideration of existentialism. Where Prometheus‘ script was elegant and thoughtful, this reflection is brain dead.

Alien (1979) has such a high-minded reputation that it’s easy to forget that every installment in this franchise has always been served with a heaping cup of cheese. Yet Ridley Scott is directing and it’s highlighted by a talented cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, and Jussie Smollett. Given that, I was expecting so much more. It makes the disappointment much more crushing. I acknowledge the crew members in these Alien films have always made a lot of dumb decisions, but Alien: Covenant tops them all.  Some random observations about that ensemble:  (1) Everyone is a couple on this expedition – including one same-sex duo.  (2) Katherine Waterston’s hairstyle recalls Jim Carrey’s bowl cut from Dumb & Dumber.  That’s not a reason to hate on a movie, but it’s such a distraction, I would be negligent not to at least mention it.

These crew members are more clueless than a group of sexually charged teens in a summer camp.  That a pair of naked lovers finds time to make out in the shower while one creature (known as a Xenomorph) prowls around the spaceship is the absolute nadir.  However, there are at least half a dozen examples where these people exhibit a brazen disregard for their own life.  Feels more like a Friday the 13th movie.  Protocols are ignored, nobody follows instructions, women weep and scream like it’s the 1950s. It becomes almost a laughable game of “Guess who’s next”. Whenever someone says they need to go off to a dark, isolated place (like use the bathroom) you know their role is coming to an end. The fact that these scientists, soldiers and shipmates have been entrusted with 2,000 human embryos to start a new colonization makes their behavior even more reckless.

The funny thing is, I can forgive a predictable elimination of lives if we’re still given an exciting version of And Then There Were None.   But no. Alien: Covenant is a really talky slog that is boring when it isn’t being thoroughly unpleasant.  Alien: Covenant does manage to serve up an abundance of gross-out “events” that are perfunctory demonstrations of body disfiguring horror.  Remember the chest bursting scene in the 1979 movie?  Of course you do. Well we get more of those. One from the front and another out of the back. But director Ridley Scott has traded on the memory of that spectacle so many times by now its impact has been destroyed. There’s nothing even remotely electrifying about these displays anymore. At a fundamental level, director Scott has satisfied a checklist of giving people the gore he thinks they want. Surprisingly most of this drama is dull until we’re served up some excitement in the final 30 minutes but you’ll have to sit through a slew of tedious conversations to get to it.

Alien: Covenant is trying to be all things to all people. On the one hand, it pacifies lovers of the original Alien by presenting a Grand Guignol-style horror film which gives the audience plenty of stomach-churning body mutilating carnage. On the other, it placates Prometheus lovers with ethical creationist theories. Crass pandering to both sides ends up satisfying neither. The best moments in Alien: Covenant center around Michael Fassbender who gets the opportunity to deliver two engaging performances. Here he plays lookalike androids: one named David (from Prometheus) and the other named Walter (an updated model). He delivers what little entertainment value can be found in this mess. By now, the slick aspects to champion in Alien: Covenant are nothing new. We get a colorful cast of astronauts differentiated by nationality, race, and gender, a gleaming set design of a spaceship and the soothing overhead voice of the ship’s onboard system they nickname “Mother”. These are the kinds of things that elevated Alien (and other sci-fi classics) from a rote story into a classy gem. But you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.  I hate rehashing a cliché but it’s apropos.  This script is so bad it’s irredeemable no matter how much shellac you apply.

05-18-17

Life

Posted in Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller on March 25, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo life_ver3_zpseahijifv.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgLife concerns six astronauts from around the world aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The plot begins when they discover a single-celled organism in a soil sample from Mars. They revive the microscopic entity with some external stimuli. As a result, the little amoeba, which they’ve dubbed “Calvin” starts to develop at a rapid rate. It’s soon clear that their understanding of this entity is not very good. They’ve underestimated the intelligence of this thing. They make that error several times actually and it’s always to the delight of an audience seeking more thrills.

You can’t read a review of Life without the critique referencing a certain sci-fi classic. That’s totally fair. Life is made up of the DNA of others films, and one in particular. I’m not even going to name the picture because I think it unfairly poisons the mind against this production. Apparently, a story loses credibility if it’s inspired by another film, even one that came out nearly four decades ago. That’s hogwash. The act of homage isn’t a reason to castigate a film. Even the precise movie in question, now venerated as a masterpiece, was chastised as merely a remake of 1958’s It! The Terror from Beyond Space at the time, so there! Let’s give director Daniel Espinosa some credit. He stole from the best and he does it with the polished art of a seasoned pro.

Life has the look of quality in every detail from the elegant art direction to the talented cast. What better way to dress up your picture than with an A-list ensemble. Ryan Reynolds is Rory Adams, the wisecracking (is he ever anything else?) mechanic of the crew. He operates the machinery. The actor worked with Daniel Espinosa before in Safe House. The connection initially gave me pause because that drama was utterly generic. Life, in contrast, is not.  Jake Gyllenhaal plays the space station’s doctor, David Jordan. His limited part is eclipsed by the other actors in a bit of casting unpredictability. Rebecca Ferguson is Miranda North, a scientist from the Center for Disease Control. She’s responsible for keeping everyone safe. Let’s just say she’s not too good at her job. Ferguson is best known as the fetching Ilsa Faust in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. She’s an appealing presence here as well.

The rest of the cast will be more unfamiliar to U.S. audiences, but no less captivating. Miranda is joined by fellow Brit Hugh Derry, a microbiologist played by Ariyon Bakare (British TV miniseries A Respectable Trade). ** Spoiler Alert ** The black guy does NOT die first – a refreshing twist. Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada (Sunshine, The Wolverine) is Shō Murakami the experienced astronaut who’s ready to retire. While on board, his wife gives birth back on Earth. Last but not least is Russian actress Olga Dihovichnaya as Katerina Golovkina, the commander of the ISS. She has appeared in a smattering of Russian films since 2002. The thespians go a long way into making this spectacle something engaging. After all, if we didn’t care about these people, the story would fail.

Life is an intense, heart-pounding saga that never lets up. The production design is dazzling. The opening scene, an uninterrupted nearly 7-minute take, is a marvel. The ISS set is constructed like a labyrinth and it’s easy to feel claustrophobic within. That adds to the tension as I was riveted throughout. Screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese have worked together before (Zombieland, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Deadpool). The script gives us just enough detailed jargon to seem cerebral but without getting bogged down in a lot of intellectual mumbo jumbo. They have a sophisticated take on this outer space thriller that really elevates the presentation into something classy. I mean let’s be clear. At heart, this is a formula sci-fi horror tale and nothing more. Don’t go in expecting to have your mind expanded. Nevertheless, it is nice to see something that isn’t part of some larger franchise. The action entertains a lot better than some warmed over reboot or sequel. Life is worth living….er uh I mean watching.

Get Out

Posted in Horror, Mystery with tags on March 1, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo get_out_ver2_zpsfkozcn69.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgA young black man has anxiety about meeting his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time. Get Out, with its race-baiting premise, would seem a bit outdated in 2017. Interracial dating is nothing new.  Rest assured director Jordan Peele knows this. Rose (Allison Williams) can’t wait to introduce Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) to her parents. They arrive at the Armitage estate. Rose’s mom (Catherine Keener) and dad (Bradley Whitford) are quite genial, excessively so in fact.  Yet something is amiss. There’s the groundskeeper, Walter (Marcus Henderson), their maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and a guest at their party named Logan (LaKeith Stanfield). All African American and all exhibit an odd demeanor. What initially felt like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner now seems closer to The Stepford Wives.

Jordan Peele merely raises the issue of race but doesn’t delve too deeply. It’s left to the moviegoer as to what they will take away from this story. A less introspective viewer may simply see “white people are evil” but look deeper and there’s an ample minefield of racial tension to explore. The director begins with the surface level awkwardness felt between a black man in a sea of affluent white people. It’s not just about Chris’ racial unease. It’s about how the townspeople try to empathize with Chris in that situation. They want to be seen as altruistic people. Those feelings manifest into socially inept behavior. They attempt to atone for his experience with overly polite, almost pandering conversation.

The screenplay capitalizes on this notion with artlessly misguided remarks at first. At the outset, Rose insists her liberal parents are really cool. She tries to ally Chris’ fears with “My dad would vote for Obama for a third term if he could.” Later there’s a party scene where Chris must navigate a maze of warm pleasantries, tinged with passively racist undertones. One guest enthusiastically extols the athletic achievements of Olympian Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics. Another who plays golf goes out of his way to tell Chris that he’s a big fan of Tiger Woods. The overcompensating comments come across like white guilt. That’s funny but then the narrative exploits this nervousness into the fear felt by an outsider. The entire audience ultimately feels it too.

Get Out strikes a nice balance between terror and comedy. There’s a satirical edge to the proceedings that elevates this horror flick into something rather intelligent. Most of the scares are psychological. Hypnosis is introduced as a frightening state of consciousness. That the clicking of a teacup could be a weapon more powerful than a loaded gun is a concept that is both amusing and disconcerting at the very same time. A trigger with the ability to render a person powerless. Ok, there is some blood in the third act, but there’s very little viscera. The R rating is mainly for language. As Get Out unfolds to its inevitable conclusion we the audience understand this environment from Chris’ perspective, The final twist is the perfect cap to a tale that has toyed with race for the entire duration. By the end, the script confronts the issue in a way that is both subversive and unique.

02-23-17

Split

Posted in Horror, Thriller with tags on February 2, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo split_ver2_zpsatpjsbnf.jpg photo starrating-1star.jpgIt’s a testament to my tolerance level that I continue to give M. Night Shyamalan a chance despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I haven’t enjoyed any of his films since Signs in 2002. That was 15 years ago and yet I still keep hoping that one day he’ll exhibit a flicker of his former talent. I wasn’t even going to give his latest a chance after The Visit (2015), a shaky-cam found-footage non-starter of a project. However reviews for Split were positive and it drew a healthy box office so I thought, how bad could it be? Pretty awful as a matter of fact. I didn’t foresee that the big twist of this M. Night Shyamalan film was that such an inferior product would implausibly become a success.

Split starts out interestingly enough. Three girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula) are getting ready to leave a birthday party. The father of the guest of honor is going to drive them home. He is approached in the parking lot by a mysterious figure after the girls are already in the car. The next minute the stranger gets into the car and there’s a chilling moment where he sprays them with a toxin. This probably would have been more effective if it wasn’t already in the trailer, but that’s not the movie’s fault. Regardless, it’s a chilling beginning.  The man’s name is Kevin (James McAvoy) and he subsequently locks them up in a basement dungeon. I started getting shades of Silence of the Lambs at this point, but that’s about where the similarities end. This screenplay has none of the depth of that film. It’s also rated PG-13 so it’s less intense, but the subject matter still feels pretty icky. I certainly wouldn’t bring children to this. Honestly, I wouldn’t bring anyone because it’s simply not good.

It turns out that Kevin suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID) and has 24 individual personalities living inside him. Already I’m not comfortable with that ridiculous number because it’s impossible for an actor to do 24 distinct characters justice. To be fair, he really only attempts like nine, but sadly, McAvoy doesn’t even give us one person that we can truly embrace. They’re a smorgasbord of various people: young/old, male/female. I thought about detailing some of them in my review but they’re really not interesting enough to warrant discussion. I will add though that the 24th entity is called The Beast. Not the same creature as in the biblical book of Revelation but I’m sure the allusion is intended.

Dissociative identity disorder (DID), previously known as multiple personality disorder, is a real mental illness. I suppose we should be thankful that Shyamalan at least knows the difference between schizophrenia and DID, but don’t look to this script for any real factual basis for the way it occurs. The movie does include a therapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher, played by Betty Buckley. She was the nice gym teacher in the Stephen King adaptation Carrie (1976) and starred in the TV series Eight is Enough. I’ve always liked her so it was nice to see she continues to get work. Her character sort of pops up at various points in the narrative. Another actor pops up near the end. I assume it’s another one of Shyamalan’s signature twists. So please enjoy that if you can even figure out what it all means. For the record, I did. Didn’t care.

Garbage is an epithet that’s thrown around so frequently these days that I hesitate to use the word, but here goes: Split is garbage. I don’t use that dismissive label lightly.  I’ll explain what took this beyond merely bad to downright offensive. M Night Shyamalan resorts to capitalizing on mental illness for sensational thrills without the care to even convey its complexities. It also exploits child abuse in a cheap attempt to give his weak story more meaning. It does not handle these subjects in a meaningful or sensitive way but rather shamelessly mines the inherent gravity in these issues for superficial kicks. It is artless. Split certainly isn’t the first film to manipulate weighty subjects in a crass manner. Last year’s The Girl on the Train served up a vulgar recipe of alcoholism, depression, and domestic abuse.   It was exploitative much in the same way and Split caused me to relive that awfulness.  Girl was one of my least favorite pictures of 2016, but it came out so late in the year that it was only among the “worst of 2016” for 3 months.  With Split‘s January release, we have a major contender just 20 days into 2017. This production has the potential to go the distance.

1-30-17

The Conjuring 2

Posted in Horror on June 10, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo conjuring_two_zps37p07hq8.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgAny decent actor worth their weight in salt can do justice to a part that’s inherently outstanding. But it takes an extraordinary talent to give life to a generic part and make it captivating. That’s the power of Vera Farmiga, an American actress active since her Broadway debut in the play Taking Sides in 1996. Perhaps today’s audiences know Farmiga best as Norma Louise Bates in the A&E television series Bates Motel. But her star turn in 2013’s The Conjuring  brought her some much deserved recognition. She, along with the accomplished Patrick Wilson, return as real life paranormal investigators Loraine and Ed Warren. The Warrens received recognition for their involvement in the Amityville Horror case made famous by the 1979 movie.

The Conjuring 2 is actually based on the Enfield poltergeist, some alleged spiritual activity that affected a council house in England from 1977 to 1979. But before we get to the legitimate heart of this tale, the narrative briefly revisits the Amityville Horror events. Ostensibly, this is to just to lay the groundwork for the societal doubt that the Warrens incurred for their work. Then it’s off to London, England, where the Warrens fly out to meet afflicted matriarch, Peggy Hodgson. This is where the proper story finally takes off — nearly an hour into this 134 minute film. Yes it is much too long.  I contend the horror sweet spot is a brisk 90 minutes.  Anyway, Peggy believes that some nasty ghosts are haunting her home. Then her youngest daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe) starts showing signs of demonic possession. Ed and Lorraine investigate and pretty soon those pesky spirits have targeted them.

Director James Wan is back. Besides helming the original The Conjuring, he directed Saw and Insidious so he knows a thing or two about horror. Wan focuses on the traumatized family first.  For a while this is a document of how a close knit household, united by a single mother, is torn apart. Then the focus shifts to the Warrens and here’s where the dramatic skills of a couple of superior actors strengthen the account. Wilson and Farmiga are Christian paranormal investigators relying on their faith and working for the Catholic church.  They are portrayed as sensible people with a healthy skepticism. Through it all, director James Wan keeps the shocks coming. The events are fashioned like a roller coaster ride with a rhythmical ebb and flow of tension and calm. Scares are artfully presented in a period atmosphere.  It lends the proceedings the look of quality that gives horror aficionados joy.  Furniture moves by itself.  Unexplained banging noises/voices are heard.  There’s 4 feet of water in the basement. That sets the mood.  The demons are scary too. One unwanted visitor looks like rocker Marilyn Manson dressed up like a nun.  Pasty white fingers reach out from behind a painting.  A spinning zoetrope brings a “crooked man” to life. I jumped a few times, but to be honest, this shtick all feels pretty familiar. Ultimately the movie belongs to Wilson and particularly Farmiga. Their unmitigated sincerity sells this picture. I was invested because of them.

06-09-16

Green Room

Posted in Crime, Horror, Thriller with tags on May 2, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo green_room_ver2_zpsszgyt22s.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe release of writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival heralded an important new talent. Only his second feature, it was the winner of the FIPRESCI award that year. The chronicle was ostensibly about an emotionally damaged, shadow of a man, out for revenge. What made that grisly thriller so much more than just a routine genre exercise, was that we somehow sympathized with the lead character and his plight.

Now Saulnier is back with Green Room, another well constructed, but no less gruesome, labor of malevolence. It concerns The Ain’t Rights, a down and out punk band from the East Coast, desperate for a paying gig. They appear to be in their mid-20s. Despite their youth, the four group members (played by Alia Shawkat, Anton Yelchin, Callum Turner and Joe Cole) have a kind of a been-there-seen-it-all world weariness that is rather amusing. They steal gas by siphoning it out of other cars, wake up in a cornfield because the driver fell asleep, and attend a podcast interview that is incredibly awkward. A question about their favorite “desert island band” becomes an amusing running gag throughout the entire picture right up through to the very last line of dialogue. The movie teases with humorous asides initially, but humor is not really the fabric of the film.

The proper tale begins when the foursome is booked to play a gig at a remote club in the woods outside Portland, Oregon. Unbeknownst to them, the bar is actually a popular hangout for neo-Nazi skinheads. The young punk rockers aren’t too keen on white supremacists, but they need the cash, so they play their set for the rowdy patrons and collect their money. As they’re about to leave, an extremely tense situation develops and the band is prevented from leaving by the skinhead bouncers. This is all under the direction of the club’s owner, Darcy, a calm white supremacist leader, portrayed in an inspired bit of casting by Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Patrick Stewart. A less than committed skinhead (Imogen Poots), becomes an unexpected ally of our protagonists.

At first the band tries to calmly talk their way out of a sticky situation, but their negotiations fail. Now it’s punks vs. skinheads in an all out game of cat and mouse. The drama begins intelligently with words but ends morbidly with slaughter.  Ah but what are the stakes? There is an assortment of random human beings, but character development is anemic at best. Without that emotional connection, our desire to even give a care is severely diminished. Director Jeremy Saulnier relies on rising tension and it works for awhile. However after 60 minutes, the dialogue becomes less needed to further developments. Gore emerges as the story in the final third. Le carnage extraordinaire is the ultimate agenda for the day. People are sliced, diced and mutilated with guns, machetes and killer dogs. It’s competently done I suppose, but it’s not as terrifying as the intense standoff that came before it. It’s exactly what I expected would happen and after Blue Ruin, I expect more from Mr. Saulnier.

04-24-16

10 Cloverfield Lane

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller on March 14, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo ten_cloverfield_lane_zpse8bhkrgw.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgA woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) awakes from a car accident and finds herself in a concrete room chained to a wall with a saline IV in her arm. A heavy-set man named Howard (John Goodman) tells her that he is her solitary chance for survival. You see, it was he that “rescued” her and is now keeping her alive. Panicked, she tries to escape, but Howard sedates her. When she comes to, Howard explains that some kind of attack has already occurred in the world and the air up on the surface is now unbreathable. He speculates either the Russians, Koreans or maybe even aliens. His bunker is the only sanctuary left.

The title 10 Cloverfield Lane is supposed to recall the sci-fi monster movie Cloverfield from 2008. That picture was directed by Matt Reeves, written by Drew Goddard and produced by JJ Abrams and Bryan Burk. But just forget about any connection to that earlier picture. All of those guys are indeed back, as producers this time, but aside from some mutual personnel and the horror angle, this story has essentially nothing to do with that earlier production. Think of this as a spin-off of the Cloverfield universe. The sooner you let go of finding ties to that prior film, the more you’ll enjoy this one on its own terms.

If 10 Cloverfield Lane has a spiritual ancestor, it would be Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, the 1948 psychological thriller based on the 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton. This debut feature from director Dan Trachtenberg virtually takes place entirely in a single enclosed space underground. The success of this three-character chamber piece rests on the charisma of its principal players as they interact with one another. John Goodman is suitably creepy. He’s memorable in a rare dramatic role. Yet he’s so visually iconic in comedic portrayals that I never forgot that I was still watching John Goodman, the actor. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is an appealing presence as a woman in a stressful situation. She radiates a mix of helplessness and moxie that snares our full attention and compassion. A sympathetic cellar-mate named Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) appears to be a fellow ally.

The atmosphere of this nail-bitter vacillates between a spirit of unease and relaxed camaraderie. The majority of the action is claustrophobic suspense that creates tension out of the unknown. What happened to the earth? Is life up there actually worse than their existence in the bunker? Can Howard be trusted? Questions of this variety fuel the narrative and warrant serious consideration as the drama plays out. We’ve seen this genre before. M. Night Shyamalan is a director that has built a career on this sort of thing. The fragments designed as a foundation on which to build a denouement that hopefully answers all of these questions and more.  The build-up is bit protracted, but don’t worry. Everything will indeed be explained by the time the credits roll. And let me affirm, I was more than satisfied by the resolution.

03-10-16

The Witch

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller on February 22, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo witch_ver3_zpsv3zoodmn.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgBleak supernatural horror about a Calvinist household in 17th-century New England. Faith is an important part of their life as father frequently cites scripture. Right at the start, he dismisses those in the community as false Christians and so he and his family are banished from the village. The specifics of the disagreement over beliefs is never explicitly stated, but given the family’s devout commitment we can only assume they were too strict. Was that even possible in Puritan society? The clan is comprised of Father William (Ralph Ineson) his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and fraternal twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson). After a time they welcome the arrival of a fifth child, baby Samuel.

Initially the narrative suggests that their lack of money and failed crops could be the reason for their downward descent. But as time wears on, more definable tragedies torment the group. These events give rise to the idea that oldest daughter Thomasin could be an evil presence. These allegations, made by family members, have an effect on her psyche. The first sign that things are amiss is the fate of infant Samuel. While under Thomasin’s care, the baby vanishes from sight the moment her eyes are closed during a game of peekaboo. Later her frustration with the unruly twins’ behavior causes her to make an assertion she later regrets. The film’s main protagonist seems to fluctuate at first but Thomasin ultimately emerges as the lead.

The Witch is a beautifully realized period piece. A carefully constructed, deeply researched drama that utilizes the language of the time. A postscript informs the audience that the dialogue was inspired by court transcripts of the 1630s. To the contemporary ear it sounds just like Shakespeare. That would be the vocabulary of the Elizabethan era, but Jacobean is more accurate since this is the early 17th century. The spirit of the prose keenly enhances the atmosphere. Yet the isolation of their existence speaks louder than any words. The eerie hostility of the early American frontier is as nasty as a villain. The gloom of the surrounding forest takes on a malevolent nature. Even the animals like a goat they’ve named Black Phillip, and a beady-eyed rabbit who pops out of the forest, take on demonic overtones.

The Witch is a dark tale of foreboding. The austere, almost grim, daily existence is maintained throughout. Most modern viewers have a mixed understanding of Puritan society. Life in New England was a completely different world over three hundred years ago. It was a harsh reality. The Witch is set some 60 years before the Salem witch trials famously dramatized in The Crucible. Certainly the story recalls those historical events, but there are distinct differences. Arthur Miller’s play revealed how paranoia can spread to create mass hysteria in a community. Writer/director Robert Eggers chooses to depict the growing fear as it affects only one family – a close-knit group, separated from civilization. Another contrast is that the conspicuous rise in bizarre occurances would seem to justify their fears. There is definitely something sinister afoot, although the lies that follow undeniably tear them further apart. Director Eggers doesn’t rely on the traditional tools of the horror genre. This is more of a thought-provoking mood piece rooted in the Jacobean dialect of the times. As such, the deliberate pace won’t charm today’s audiences raised on physical shocks. However those partial to slavish attention to detail will find much favor here. This engrossing saga of a Puritan family’s worst nightmare is extremely artistic. That makes the thiller rather unique in this day and age.

02-18-16

Goodnight Mommy

Posted in Foreign, Horror, Thriller with tags on October 8, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Goodnight Mommy photo starrating-4stars.jpgCreepy twins? Check. Domineering mother? Check. Frightening masks? Hissing cockroaches? A newly acquired pet? A priest? A cemetery? Cornfields? Plot twist? All present and accounted for. Goodnight Mommy contains some timeworn horror movie tropes, but instead of relying on clichés, it elevates the formula. The sampling synthesizes these elements into something entirely new and surprisingly innovative. Horror, arthouse cinema or psychological thriller, it’s all of these and more. I dare say within its framework, I faced a small handful of the most uniquely disquieting images I have ever seen. You can’t unsee these things. The concepts are creatively unsettling.

Goodnight Mommy is the first narrative feature from filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. Ever since it had its world premiere at last year’s Venice Film Festival, the movie has built up a solid reputation of positive buzz. In September it was even submitted as Austria’s 2015 Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film.  Flashback: fellow countryman Michael Haneke’s Amor won the award for Austria back in 2012. Interestingly Goodnight Mommy actually recalls the chilly isolation of Michael Haneke’s work, particularly with his Funny Games. Even the similar setting, a gorgeous estate by the lake, is incongruously tranquil for a horror flick.

The writer-director team of Franz and Fiala take the sacred bond that exists between a mother and her children and shatters it to pieces. In their deconstruction, the chronicle plays out slowly, but at the climax, the dysfunction reaches a boiling point. Elias and Lukas are nine-year-old twin boys enjoying the summer in a modernist lake house made of steel and glass. Things seem fairly idyllic until mother shows up. Father is not in the picture. Mother’s appearance is obscured, her face wrapped in bandages, apparently the result of some facial surgery. She is a television presenter so perhaps the procedures were cosmetic. Regardless, her presence now vexes the children. She regresses into more irritable and oppressive, almost malicious, behavior. Is this woman their mother or is she an impostor? The boys have their doubts. What follows is an exploration of identity and trust.

To give any more plot details would be to spoil the delight of discovery. Oh and believe me, this spine-chiller has a few shocking developments. The drama travels down a twisty path that grows ever more grotesque. The descent is so gradual that for most of the duration I was completely on board. The eerie trip mostly relies on psychological horror. If the directors make an error, it’s that they ultimately show more than they should. The flirtation with gore is enough. By the end, the plunge into Grand Guignol crosses the line. Only once, okay maybe twice. The impropriety betrays the dominant milieu of the picture.

In this genre, what often separates the wheat from the chaff is the visual lexicon, that is – the discernible style of the director which is then boldly captured by the cinematographer. Here they artfully flaunt a narrative that manifests anxiety. The dread is palpable. The fact that the ambiguous story is created without much clarification intensifies the air of disorientation. Granted there are a lot of red herrings that purposefully mislead the viewer in ways that don’t always play fair. I still have no idea what that pizza delivery was about. But in a production such as this, the misdirection only heightens the unease. The script skillfully undermines the strength of the familial bonds we hold dear. I won’t soon forget the experience. I just have one nagging question: Why are the Red Cross volunteers in Austria so aggressive?

10-07-15