Archive for the Horror Category

Doctor Sleep

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Horror, Thriller with tags on November 14, 2019 by Mark Hobin

doctor_sleep_ver2STARS3Doctor Sleep vacillates between trying to please two factions.  Some audiences will come for the adaptation of Stephen King’s 2013 novel which the author wrote as a sequel to his 1977 bestseller The Shining.  Then there are the fans of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 movie that arguably has an even more devoted following.  King himself was famously not a fan of Kubrick’s vision.  The now-classic was a gorgeous evocation of horror that relied on visual imagery, not on detailed explanations.  Conversely, Mike Flanagan (Ouija: Origin of Evil, Gerald’s Game) has directed an account that offers a lot of exposition for people hungry for answers.  This chronicle is more plot-driven with lots of folklore to deepen your understanding of what “shining” is.  Doctor Sleep tries to schizophrenically appease both camps.

The story concerns Danny Torrance, now Dan, (Ewan McGregor), best remembered as the little clairvoyant son of his mad father, Jack.  He has become an alcoholic, desperate to forget the events at the Overlook hotel.  He comforts the terminally ill while working at a hospice where the patients give him the nickname “Doctor Sleep”.  He meets another psychic, a teenage girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran) and they band together to fight a malevolent clan called the True Knot.  The group is killing children with special powers and feeding off the steam that they emit.  It’s just as gruesome as it sounds and there’s one death in particular (Jacob Tremblay) that is extremely hard to watch.  I suspect the methodical depiction of what befalls him could be a deal-breaker for some people.  A couple of other individuals with close relationships will be introduced and then summarily killed off as well.  The tale has an uncomfortable disregard for the lives of characters whose deaths should mean more than just another offhand development.

This presentation is largely missing the stately grandeur of its precursor.  So in that respect, it will not appease the die-hards of Stanley Kubrick’s atmospheric reworking.  However, I can wholeheartedly recommend it to people who thought Kubrick’s version should’ve adhered closer to King’s original text.  If you crave exposition and plot, this is the production for you.  It’s a convoluted follow-up that attempts to give lots of unnecessary details about Dan’s extrasensory “shining” power.  The bulk of the narrative isn’t a continuation of the events from the first film but rather a saga about what Dan encounters after he grew up.   The focus is on his interactions with the True Knot, the aforementioned nomadic group of evil visionaries.  In that sense, Doctor Sleep becomes a superhero origin story of nefarious mutants with psychic powers and goofy names.  There’s Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon), Grandpa Flick (Carel Struycken) and Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind), among others.

Doctor Sleep is a mixed bag.  It ultimately can’t escape the shadow of the 1980 film.  “This also exists very much in the same cinematic universe that Kubrick established in his adaptation of The Shining,” director Mike Flanagan has said.  He leans heavily on imagery from Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation in several key scenes, particularly in the third act.  This might have been more thrilling if Steven Spielberg hadn’t already exploited the same iconography in 2018 with Ready Player One.  There are roughly 30 minutes of developments that include sets that tastefully recreate the Overlook Hotel.  Additionally, lookalike actors are cast playing the parts of Dan’s younger self (Roger Dale Floyd), his parents Wendy (Alex Essoe) and Jack (Henry Thomas) and Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly) the cook.  When this appropriates the visuals of its predecessor, it can be distracting.  Also, at 2 and a half hours it’s far too long.  Nevertheless, this movie has some good points.  Chief among them is Rebecca Ferguson who is great as the central villain Rose the Hat.  True to her moniker, she wears a top hat and exudes this Stevie Nicks vibe of beautiful witchery.  She clearly enjoys the fun of being the baddie and its a compelling performance.  When Doctor Sleep isn’t overly wrapped up in mythology and explanation and simply focuses on the performances of the main characters, it can be fitfully entertaining.

11-07-19

The Lighthouse

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Horror with tags on October 26, 2019 by Mark Hobin

lighthouse_ver2STARS3I loved director Robert Eggers’ debut The Witch back in 2015.  His follow-up really doubles down on the lo-fi art house pretensions of his directorial debut.  Not only is it shot in black and white but it also presents a 1.19:1 aspect ratio reducing the screen down to an almost perfect square.  Furthermore, it’s another period piece this time set more than 200 years later in 1850 and it relies on the dialect and colloquialisms of the era.  Eggers co-wrote the script along with his brother Max Eggers.  The screenplay was heavily influenced by the 19th-century writings of author Sarah Orne Jewett.  The thick drawl of the dialogue can get a bit impenetrable to our 21st-century ears.  Lastly, this two-hander stars current indie idol Robert Pattinson (Cosmopolis, Good Time) as well as eccentric indie notable Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project, At Eternity’s Gate).  Each actor often gravitates toward inscrutable fare.  This film is a prime example.  As two bona fide movie stars should, they fully commit to their characters by bringing their A-game.   If nothing else, their performances are intense.  It’s still a challenging watch.

The Lighthouse has been described as psychological horror which is a nice description for a movie that traffics in an unsettling milieu without actually being scary.  On the surface, it’s a story about two co-workers forced to live together in a remote lighthouse on a tiny New England island.  They’re supposed to be there for four weeks until their replacements show up.  Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) are roommates that don’t get along and their deteriorating relationship is the plot.  Thomas Wake is the old salt in charge and he makes life absolutely miserable for his young protege.  For the most part, the taciturn Winslow does what he is told.  The abusive Wake burdens Winslow with an inordinate amount of chores, forces him to drink, frequently passes gas and spends time with (ahem) himself.  Wake’s repulsive behavior offends Winslow.   Wake seems completely unstable — a taskmaster obsessed with power.  At one point Wake angrily demands that Winslow make the lighthouse “sparkle like a sperm whale’s pecker!”  The line reads as ridiculous as it sounds.  It was then that I realized I was watching a comedy albeit one inspired by the visual style of Sven Nykvist.

The pictorial tableau is crammed with haunting images.  They compel the viewer to remain riveted to the screen.  Indeed the cinematography is the most attractive feature of the spectacle.  Director of photography Jarin Blaschke makes bad things look beautiful. There’s a seductive mermaid (Valeriia Karaman), an impending storm, and claustrophobic quarters tainted by an unendurable stench.  Emptying a chamber pot filled with feces proves especially frustrating on a windy day.  Thank goodness this movie doesn’t utilize the 1960s innovation Smell-O-Vision because the odor would be intolerable.  The sound design is just as important as the visuals as a constantly blaring foghorn adds to the tension.  The spell of this film is to lull the audience into a state of unease and for a while, that’s enough.

The effect of extreme loneliness on the psyche is a theme.  As such, there’s a feeling that much of what we see isn’t real.  Are the consequences of their seclusion a product of their environment or the result of supernatural forces?  There is no definitive answer.  The film is playfully vague which cleverly provides a reason for people to discuss what is real and what is fantasy.  Oh did I mention that a bird steals the show?  Much as the goat Black Phillip in The Witch was an animal of malevolent evil, there’s a seagull here that traumatizes our protagonist.  I could have adored an entire conflict focused around him but alas our feathered friend is but a minor interlude.  The further along we go, the more we realize that the “story” is simply about creating a mood of despair.  Sticking the landing — so to speak — is so difficult in these productions high on atmospherics and low on substance.  That can be disheartening for people who crave a point – a final thought to think about as you leave the theater.  Sadly the narrative is “resolved” in a way that leaves even more doubt than resolution.  Admirers will defend, “it’s about the journey, not the destination.” Fans and detractors alike should happily agree on this point.

10-22-19

Zombieland: Double Tap

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Horror with tags on October 21, 2019 by Mark Hobin

zombieland_double_tap_ver2STARS3.5So forgive the pun, but I am a DEAD-icated fan of the 2009 original film.  With that said, I didn’t need a sequel 10 years later but here we are.  I’m happy to report it’s a funny and well-paced tale.  Director Ruben Fleischer (Venom) returns along with the same screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool).  Writer Dave Callaham is a new addition.  The script doesn’t overcomplicate things.  Zombies are still on the loose and our four protagonists are back to fight them.  Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) and Wichita (Emma Stone) all go by the cities where they’re from.  Those aren’t their actual names.  Getting too attached to people in this society is not encouraged.  Death by zombies is a serious reality.

Zombieland 2 Double Tap is an entertaining road movie about a family of sorts.  Little Rock isn’t a child anymore.  An adolescent often needs to rebel against a father figure.    She leaves the nest, so to speak, and meets up with a hippie/stoner/pacifist named Berkeley (Avan Jogia).  The others go out on the road in search of her.  That’s when the adventure starts to get interesting.  Along the way, they meet a blonde airhead named Madison.  Actress Zoey Deutch (Everybody Wants Some!!) is the MVP of this production.   How Madison has managed to survive in this post-apocalyptic wasteland is nothing short of a miracle.  Deutch is absolutely hilarious.  She steals every scene in which she appears.  No small feat given the caliber of talent assembled here.  These 4 stars have 8 Oscar nominations between them.  Emma Stone (La La Land) has actually won.

Our heroes have truly perfected their zombie-killing methods.  Over the years, walking corpses have evolved.   They’ve divided these monsters into different types by giving them humorous code names.  Brief vignettes detail the “zombie kills of the year” and each interlude is good for a few chuckles.  Columbus’ strict rules for survival frequently pop up like huge letters that take up space in the physical world to emphasize their importance.  In fact, a double-tap shooting technique is the most effective way to kill the undead.  However, I’ve also got a cinematic rule of my own.  Projectile vomiting is never okay.  This movie unfortunately breaks that rule.

Like its predecessor, Zombieland: Double Tap is a comedy first and a horror movie….well it really isn’t very scary at all.  Although it is incredibly violent.  Zombies are shot within point-blank range over and over.  The nonstop slaughter feels like a first-person-shooter video game in a comedic vein.  That flippant attitude pervades the adventure.  The playfulness helps to both lighten the mood as well as make the entire endeavor feel like a frivolous exercise.  These friends live at the White House, go to Graceland in one segment, meet their doppelgangers in another.  It’s all so very random – a series of gags that have been assembled together to make a feature.  Yet the dialogue-heavy screenplay has a lot of bright banter that truly elevates this clever zombie satire.  The conflict amongst this amiable extended family is far more engaging than any of the altercations with faceless ghouls.   As a compelling story the narrative is lacking, but as an afternoon diversion to make you laugh the production is quite successful.  Yes, this sequel is completely unnecessary but that doesn’t mean it’s not an enjoyable comedy.   I laughed out loud…a lot.

10-17-19

It Chapter Two

Posted in Horror, Thriller with tags on September 7, 2019 by Mark Hobin

it_chapter_two_ver3STARS1.5Warning: It Chapter Two is almost 3 hours which doesn’t translate into “better”, just “more”.  That means objectionable situations, jump scares, blood, and gore in perpetuity.  Director Andy Muschietti takes everything awful about his first film and significantly increases that unpleasantness exponentially.  I will say this. If you thoroughly enjoyed part one, I should think you’ll enjoy part two as well because it’s more of the same.  That’s about as ringing an endorsement I can give this turgid mess.

In 1989, the group of kids known as “The Losers” made a blood pact to return to the town of Derry if the entity known as “It” ever came back.  It Chapter Two begins in 2016 – 27 years later.  The picture opens with the shocking depiction of a vicious assault on Adrian (Xavier Dolan) and Don (Taylor Frey), a gay couple.  The men are mercilessly beaten by a group of homophobic thugs.  Then Adrian is thrown over a bridge into the water below.  He has an asthmatic attack and nearly drowns.  Suddenly the poor man is pulled out of the water by a scary looking clown.  He is then eaten alive.  His boyfriend Don watches in horror.  Few will realize that the violent hate crime that unethically sets off this intro is based on the real-life murder of Charlie Howard in Bangor, Maine in 1984.  Unbelievably this killing is thoughtlessly used to signify that Pennywise is back.

This act sets the story in motion.  Mike (Isiah Mustafa aka the Old Spice Guy), is now an adult and still living in Derry as the town librarian.  He alerts his childhood friends that they must once again fight IT.  We proceed to catch up with the other Losers in adulthood.  The original screenplay reduced these kids to basic simplistic traits.  That’s what passed for characterization in the first movie and so I’m obliged to use those same descriptive adjectives here.  There’s stuttering writer Bill (James McAvoy), sexually abused Beverly (Jessica Chastain), overweight turned hottie Ben (Jay Ryan), foul-mouthed comedian Richie (Bill Hader), hypochondriac risk assessor Eddie (James Ransone) and Jewish accountant Stanley (Andy Bean).  Neighborhood bully Henry (Teach Grant) is back again too.  He kills a guard and escapes a mental institution so he can continue to terrorize.  What, the clown isn’t enough?  As a secondary antagonist, his presence is completely unnecessary.  This isn’t a production that relies on acting.  However, Hader delivers the most recognizably human performance of someone with genuine feelings.  Also kudos to the casting director for hiring actors that perfectly suggest grown-up versions of their youthful selves.  The chronicle employs frequent flashbacks to the past and the similarity of the child actors to their adult counterparts is uncanny.  There aren’t many compliments I can bestow, but the optics of the cast are on point.

The brutal attack of the opening scene is merely one regrettable vignette.  Unfortunately, it kicks off the entire movie.  I was willing to get past that and still give this a chance.  Sadly, we’re assaulted by more heavy abuse that is exploited to inject superficial weight to a script that has no respect or understanding for the gravity of the issues it so carelessly desecrates.  Writer Gary Dauberman returns to adapt Stephen King’s novel.  When we’re introduced to Beverly (Jessica Chastain) as an adult, she’s married to an abusive husband named Tom (Will Beinbrink).  Beverly tells her husband that she must travel to Derry to visit friends.  However, he now thinks she is cheating on him because he heard Mike’s name.  Tom starts to physically beat Beverly and then attempts to rape her.  This is yet another really ugly spectacle.  Luckily she fights back and runs away, but the feeling that lingers is pure ick.  It casts a pall over this production.  This feeling never goes away.  Stanley (Andy Bean) is so scared to hear the news that he commits suicide by slitting his wrists in the bathtub so he doesn’t have to endure any more nastiness.  Dear Lord, please forgive me for saying this, but I envied him at this point.

I already hated this film 30 minutes in and it had only barely begun.  Remember it’s 3 hours.  The rest is just as appalling.  It Chapter Two is an absolute dumpster fire.  The piecemeal tale is manufactured from a conventional attempt to string together a lot of expensive special effects and jump scares.  The saga revisits the Losers as children in a protracted and convoluted sequence in the second hour.  This dump of a narrative throws everything it can at the audience including the kitchen sink.  The drama is so sloppily constructed, ultimately it doesn’t feel like a story but rather a highlight reel for the visual effects teams at Method Studios and Atomic Arts.  The impressive technology grows increasingly ubiquitous.  To make matters worse, the screenplay has no sensitivity for the sincere loss of human lives and suffering that it depicts.  There is no emotional connection to the depravity.  But I’ve grown tired of my rant as I’m sure you have too.  I needn’t continue to list this movie’s many offensives.  If I did, my review would be 10 pages long.

09-05-19

Ready or Not

Posted in Drama, Horror, Thriller with tags on August 25, 2019 by Mark Hobin

ready_or_notSTARS2If Ready or Not is the question, the answer most assuredly is “not”.  I didn’t much care for this umpteenth variation on The Most Dangerous Game.  It is a violent hunt where the audience’s pleasure is extracted from the way in which various characters are murdered.  Will they be bludgeoned, shot, or crushed to death?  Oh please don’t keep me in suspense! Somewhere, buried underneath this blood-soaked free for all, there is a seed of inspiration that could have sparked a more intellectual consideration that dealt with issues of classism.

Penniless Grace (Samara Weaving) is a bride about to marry her beloved.  By contrast, Alex ( Mark O’Brien ) the groom is exceedingly rich.  He is of the Le Domas family who made their fortune through board games.  Their impressive wealth has also afforded them the ownership of four professional sports teams.  They are a dynasty.  “We prefer dominion” the patriarch offers.  Grace is a foster child with no friends or relatives of her own.  This conveniently relieves the writers of having to give this poor woman any sort of backstory.  Tradition states that any new addition to their wealthy empire must randomly pick a card on their wedding night and play the game selected.  This has been decreed by the clan’s original benefactor, a mysterious figure named Mr. Le Bail.  Games in the past have included Old Maid, Checkers, and other ordinary selections.  But when Grace selects “Hide and Seek” the room grows silent.  This is the one card you do not want to draw.  She is unaware but soon she will be literally hunted to death through the halls of the estate by the rest of the household.  Crossbows, spears, axes, and muskets will be the weapons of choice.  Oh, and if I may quote Paul Thomas Anderson, there will be blood.

The superior cast disguises this B movie dross in a sheen that can camouflage the muck.  Lead heroine Samara Weaving is gamely athletic as Grace.  Naturally, we want her to live.  Yet this woman’s ability to continually evade her captors suspends disbelief to the point of exasperation.  She’s restricted to a mansion, not an entire country.  Eliminating her shouldn’t be this hard.  The affluent Le Domas clan includes some recognizable name actors.  Adam Brody (FOX TV’s The O.C.) is alcoholic brother Daniel.  Aunt Becky is portrayed by Andie MacDowell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Groundhog Day) and patriarch Tony is embodied by old standby Henry Czerny.  He memorably played a bureaucratic jerk in Clear and Present Danger and has been reliably playing slimeballs ever since.  Melanie Scrofano (Syfy TV’s Wynonna Earp) is indelible as the fluttery, pill-popping Emilie.  Her theatrical character delivers lines that would sound a lot funnier on a stage.  “Why does this keep happening!” Emilie whines after she unintentionally kills the wrong person yet again.  Her lack of compassion is hilarious.  It’s just that the loss of human life amidst such gory details makes Emilie’s disinterest a lot less funny.  Her flippant reaction should be the punchline, not the brutal slaughter.

Ready or Not had the potential to be so much more.  As I watched this grisly pursuit unfold, I pictured the production reimagined as an unconventional play — an intricately plotted comedy of manners that satirized the upper class with a macabre sense of humor.  The screenplay by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy obviously means to skewers the well-to-do as a godless class prone to murder and mayhem.  Yet there is no wit or subtly.  “They’re just trying to figure out if you’re a gold-digging whore,” one family member tells Grace early on.  It’s pretty heavy-handed.  Rich people are jerks is what passes for insight.  In time, various people will accidentally die in grotesque ways.  In a play, we’d only have to imagine the carnage.  The emphasis on the cruel deaths is at odds with the lighthearted feel of the script.  Violent murder isn’t funny in any era but when mass shootings seemingly occur on a weekly basis, the depiction is especially ill-timed.  In the hands of Busick and Murphy,  Ready or Not clumsily devolves into a ghastly and oppressive product.  The drama takes place in an ornate manor which suitably lends the setting an elegance.  The cinematography, however, wallows in dark tones which ultimately sabotage any feeling of lightness.  Grace’s wedding dress is completely covered in blood and guts by the end.  Thank goodness this is only 90 minutes long.  Under the auspices of a more capable writer, classism, not killing would be the raison d’être of this piece.  There are much more talented writers who could do this type of material justice.  Is John Guare available?

08-22-19

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on August 10, 2019 by Mark Hobin

scary_stories_to_tell_in_the_darkSTARS2It’s Halloween night, 1968.  In the Mill Valley suburb of Pennsylvania, a group of misfit teenagers seek refuge in the abandoned mansion where Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard) once lived.  The legend contends that the vengeful woman held a terrible secret.  There in her room, they discover a haunted journal of individual tales.  The book contains scary stories of the past but there are blank pages as well.  When nerdy horror novelist Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) carelessly recites an incantation from the tome, Sarah’s spirit is unleashed.  Soon new chapters begin to magically appear on the previously empty pages.  Each one will have a dire consequence for a person trespassing in her home.  The appealing cast includes Stella’s friends, intellectual Auggie (Gabriel Rush), mischievous Chuck (Austin Zajur) and an enigmatic teen drifter named Ramón (Michael Garza).  Chuck’s sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn), a dumb blonde stereotype, shows up later along with her date Tommy (Austin Abrams), a football player/bully at the school.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is an adaptation of Alvin Schwartz’s trilogy of children’s books that were published in 1981, 1984 and 1991.  Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro is a producer and co-writer.  The books were a horror compendium of urban legends and folk tales.  The movie interpolates several of the short stories by weaving them into an overall feature.  The film can easily be broken apart into pieces.  “The Haunted House”, “Harold” The Red Spot”, “The Big Toe”, and “The Jangly Man” are all episodes within the narrative.  The pale lady of “The Dream” is a high point.  It’s the only time I was ever creeped out.  Still, the interlude is effective only because it produces a haunting image.  The simple story is merely about an obese woman that wants to hug you.  Some fables are lifted directly from the text.  Others are composites.  They’re all dull and perfunctory.  Although the drama presents this all as one united saga, it’s obvious from its episodic nature that this account has been cobbled together from disparate yarns.  It still has the divided feel of an anthology.  There are thematic parallels to Creepshow (1982).  There’s even a gross-out tale that resembles that flick’s cockroach scene.

The kids are ostensibly here to unravel the mystery of why Sarah Bellows, even in death, is still so ticked off.  They are frustratingly ineffective for the duration of the picture.  The kids watch in terror as one new chapter after another writes itself in blood on the page before them.  There’s a Spielbergian mood.  Properties like the TV show Stranger Things and the adaptation of Stephen King’s It (2017) are very much in vogue.  This production clearly wants to exploit that same demographic.  Each youthful victim is eliminated one by one.  The remaining survivors seemingly learn nothing from the previous death.  I mean if they did then the film would be over a lot faster, right?  There is a solution to stopping these casualties but it’s about as generic as something like telling the truth.  Until that occurs, bad things just keep happening to these people Final Destination-style so the writers can justify a nearly 2-hour running time.  Oh, and the chronicle makes sure to isolate each character when they face their demise.  That also adds to the disjointed, fragmentary nature of this story.  The screenplay by brothers Kevin and Dan Hageman is extremely poor.

There are some positives.  The setting is small-town America, 1968, so it’s an evocative period piece.  It uses the Vietnam War, racial injustice and the presidential election of Richard Nixon as background elements.  The atmosphere is more picturesque than say a film set in our modern-day.  Unfortunately, the script doesn’t do anything interesting with those ideas.  It simply uses them as window dressing.  For fans of the series, I do think director André Øvredal (Trollhunter) has done a nice job at visually embodying the original freaky illustrations by Stephen Gammell.  However, your imagination is always going to be scarier than something manifested so literally in gross detail.  The movie employs copious amounts of CGI.  Some scenes are eerie.  One concerning a pimple is too disgusting for words, but none of it is particularly scary.

Midsommar

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery on July 8, 2019 by Mark Hobin

midsommar_ver2STARS4How do you analyze a movie like Midsommar?  On the one hand, it’s an effective psychological drama that induces dread in a unique way.  It’s an impressive achievement.  On the other hand, it details an extremely unpleasant and often disturbing horror that will shake you to your very core.  Ok well, I can’t speak for everyone, but it rattled me.  This wasn’t a pleasurable experience.  Yet there is so much to recommend.

To start, I adored the central performance of actress Florence Pugh.  Dani Ardor is not in a happy place.  Our heroine has suffered an unspeakable family tragedy.  She is affected by grief.  The intensity causes a traumatic breakdown.  Dani must face agonizing sorrow more than once in this film.  Her primal screams recall the pain Toni Collette’s character endured in director Ari Aster’s debut Hereditary.  Pugh’s ability to exhibit extreme anguish is difficult to watch because it’s so genuine.  Her emotional state mirrors the tangible horror of what’s happening around her.  It’s almost cathartic because Dani’s pain seems so primal.  The tangible process of acting in this production must have been physically draining.  My heart went out to the actress herself.  It doesn’t happen often.  I had this reaction when watching Shelley Duvall in The Shining, as well as Isabelle Rossellini in Blue Velvet.  Florence Pugh as Dani exhibits emotional hell in a way I’ve rarely felt in a movie.

Anxiety riddled Dani looks for support from her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), but their relationship is not in a happy place either.  Christian has a trip to Sweden planned with his buddies Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter) and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren).  They’re going to attend a rare Midsommar festival that only occurs once every 90 years.  They’re traveling to a commune in Halsingland, a village where Pelle grew up.  They expect a little rest, relaxation and perhaps to meet women.  We the audience know that Christian was about to break up with Dani just before the tragedy.  Of course the timing couldn’t have been worse because now he can’t bring himself to sever ties with her.  When Dani finds out about the trip, she is rightfully hurt and so Christian begrudgingly invites her along.  He continues to exhibit increasingly distant behavior that incites our disdain.  He couldn’t be more disconnected.  Dani has no support system on which to fall.  His grad school friends aren’t much better.  They’re less than thrilled to have her tag along, although Pelle does reach out to comfort Dani at one point.

The Swedish word “Midsommar” predicably translates to Midsummer but specifically describes the first day of summer or the summer solstice.  Pagans have celebrated this holiday for hundreds of years.  The tradition includes weaving wreaths and crowns, eating herring and strawberries, playing folk music and singing songs, and dancing around the maypole.  The maypole is a mast garnished with flowers and ribbon to symbolize a tree.  It may seem like a children’s game but the giant phallus in the middle of the village clearing also holds an earthly significance of fertility to adults.  It highlights a memorable scene.

Midsommar is a hallucinogenic fever dream that blurs the line between delusions and reality.  The citizens rely on psychedelics to enhance their existence.  To reach this remote location, the friends must drive for 4 hours from Stockholm. Right before they reach their final destination, the group is offered magic mushrooms to help them acclimatize to the festivities.  Dani declines.  Then is made to feel like a killjoy for her decision.  If you’ve ever been forced to indulge in something that made you uncomfortable, you know how troublesome that experience can be.  It’s subtle, but things deteriorate from there.  The group spends most of their time in a psychedelic haze.  The long daylight hours coupled with drug trips make it difficult to determine the passage of time.  Occasionally you forget these people are under the influence.  Much later on when the flowers in her crown star to pulsate, it’s so bizarre because we the audience feel like we’re on drugs as well.

When they ultimately arrive, they encounter a big wooden sunburst which they walk through as a portal to a clearing in the woods.  There they meet a mysterious group of Swedes called the Harga where the adherents dress in embroidered white garments.  Later the women adorn their hair with floral headdresses.  The blonde and blue-eyed community has the feel of a cult.  Yet everyone appears benevolent and inviting.  There’s a young oracle named Ruben (Levente Puczkó-Smith) whose drawings comprise a theological text that is interpreted and then assimilated into their lives.  They’re taken to a huge barn where the ceiling is adorned with primitive art depicting various animals and people.  One glimpse of a banner posted outside depicts degenerate acts that detail a love story.  It’s ever so briefly seen, but long enough to convey the perversion.  The sleeping arrangements consist of a series of twin size beds arranged all along the perimeter of the edifice.  Midsommar is fascinating because it mines terror in the perpetual daylight of a Scandinavian summer.  It’s a daydream where warm sunlight bathes the festival.  The film is visually light.  Henrik Svensson’s production design coupled with superior cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski creatively establishes a mood that is both idyllic but sinister.

Midsommar isn’t about whether something bad will happen.  If you’ve seen The Wicker Man, you know that danger is afoot.   This is a chronicle about the way things unfold and evolve.  It’s a psychological journey.   Midsommar is a slow burn of a film and it’s nearly 2 1/2 hours long.  It gets oppressive.  The viewer is transported to this pastoral community where we are incorporated into customs we don’t understand.  Their ritualistic traditions are based on the cycle of life as it relates to how a year is divided.  Life is differentiated into four 18-year segments that correspond with spring then summer, fall, and ultimately winter.  Their godless beliefs worship the season themselves.  It may sound poetic but Ari Aster doesn’t make their devotion attractive.  This voyage down the rabbit hole is a disquieting descent.  Several setpieces detail things that are extremely unsettling.  There are moments where director Ari Aster presents something shocking.  Conventional filmmaking dictates that you cut away but Aster lingers on the image.  Then brutally doubles down on it.  He condemns the sight but crosses the line in order to enforce a point of view.  This is a movie that wallows in dark forces.  It’s masterfully put together.  Though I can’t say I technically “enjoyed” Midsommar, I truly admired it.  It is an authentic presentation of evil in cinematic form.  Now real talk:  I’m concerned.   Can someone please give director Ari Aster a hug?

07-03-19

Ma

Posted in Horror, Thriller with tags on June 8, 2019 by Mark Hobin

maSTARS3.5There’s something so wonderful about Ma, the new horror movie starring Octavia Spencer.  I’ll be honest, it’s kind of a cheesy film.  Tate Taylor also directed The Girl on the Train which was one of my least favorite releases of 2016.  But Ma is something else entirely.  It’s a completely idiosyncratic story about a middle-aged black woman that befriends a group of mostly white teens.  She invites them over so they can have a safe place to hang out and drink.  Obviously, juveniles under the age of 21 shouldn’t be drinking but Spencer isn’t supposed to be playing an admirable person.  However, there’s a lot more to uncover here than initially meets the eye.

Ma is trashy fun.  Screenwriters Scotty Landes and Tate Taylor know exactly the kind of campy film they’re making.  So does Octavia Spencer.  It’s not great art but it is entertaining.  She plays a veterinary assistant named Sue Ann Ellington who is approached by a group of adolescents who ask her to buy alcohol for them.  Sue Ann is awkward.  She sports a hairstyle seemingly inspired by Joey Lawrence in the TV show Gimme a Break! circa 1983.  It isn’t only the way she looks, though.  It’s the way she acts.  Spencer’s identity is that of a kindly mature woman desperate to be liked.  The kids start calling her Ma and she likes the attention.  The script gives this misfit a detailed backstory recounted in flashbacks.  There are details to this character that aren’t readily apparent.  There’s a reason for her unhinged behavior.  She still harbors unresolved anger from her past.

Ma goes to places I didn’t foresee.  At first, she simply buys the kids booze, but pretty soon she’s offering up the basement in her home as a place for them to party.  Then she’s celebrating right alongside them.  That’s so unexpected.  So is the soundtrack which includes “The Safety Dance”, “Kung Fu Fighting” and “Funkytown”.  I didn’t reckon Ma would crank up the bouncy hit “September” by Earth Wind and Fire while running over a victim.  It’s refreshing to see a production where Octavia Spencer gets to be the star and the supporting cast are there to support her.  The ensemble consists of teen Maggie (Diana Silvers, Booksmart) who has just moved to the area with her mother Erica (Juliette Lewis).  Luke Evans is Ben, an old high school classmate from Erica’s childhood and Missi Pyle portrays Ben’s girlfriend who can’t hold her liquor.   There’s also Allison Janney who’s highly memorable as Ma’s irritable boss.  There is literally only one note to her performance.  That sounds like a condemnation but it’s not.  Janney is hilarious.  She doesn’t have many lines but every one she utters is vicious.  This is a reunion of sorts. Janney and Spencer were in The Help together which was likewise helmed by Tate Taylor. He happens to play a police officer here.

You really have to suspend a lot of disbelief with Ma. The way these children keep going back to Ma’s house makes absolutely no sense. It almost becomes an unintentional(?) running joke.  There are so many signs that Ma isn’t quite right.  Early on she points a gun at one of the students and demands that he remove his clothes.   It’s an uncomfortable scene, but the kids inexplicably seem fine with it after she laughs it off.  Later she hugs Erica and her expression over toward Maggie goes from delighted to deranged in a half second.  That’s part of the movie’s spell.  Spencer adroitly switches from sympathetic to cruel.  I felt sorry for this woman.  Then I hated her.  Earlier this year Neil Jordan’s Greta employed a similar camp sensibility.  Ma is even less inhibited and therefore more fun.  For the majority of the picture, this is a compelling character study. Unfortunately, the drama’s final 20-minute descent into Grand Guignol is a letdown.  Yet through it all, Spencer endures as a fascinating personality.  The achievement would be a parody in a lesser actor’s hands.  Spencer extracts both pathos and absurdity from the screenplay.  The individual is cut from the same cloth as Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Piper Laurie in Carrie, and Kathy Bates in Misery.   Those may be iconic grandes dames of horror but Spencer is most definitely in the same league.

06-08-19

The Curse of La Llorona

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on April 23, 2019 by Mark Hobin

curse_of_la_llorona_ver2STARS2.5In Mexican folklore, La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez) is the legend of a “weeping woman” who drowned her children in a blind rage.  The act was to take revenge on her philandering husband, but once she realized what she had done, the river had already carried them away.  After her death, she was prevented from entering the kingdom of heaven until she found them.  Thus, she continues to wander the night looking for children whom she mistakes for her own.

The Curse of La Llorona is the sixth installment in producer James Wan’s horror franchise that began with the breakout success of The Conjuring in 2013 and includes Annabelle (2014) and The Nun (2018).  The fable dates back to 1673 and it’s nicely reenacted as an eerie intro that sets the stage for the proper story here.  The production is a period piece that mainly takes place 300 years later in 1973.  This allows for Father Perez (Tony Amendola) who appeared in the 1967 set Annabelle to briefly pop up, so there’s the connective tissue to the rest of the series.

Recently widowed Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini) becomes familiar with the myth when investigating a case of possible child abuse.  She is a social worker questioning the mother (Patricia Velasquez) of two sons.  Soon Anna’s own kids Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) are being terrorized.  She appeals to a former priest named Rafael Olvera (Raymond Cruz) for help.  This isn’t great art.  It’s a lot of scares loosely strung together by a generic tale dressed up in period detail.  Even though this is primitive stuff, there is some enjoyment in experiencing one shock after another.  Car windows roll down by themselves, transparent umbrellas reveal shadowy figures when lowered then disappear when raised.  Later, Rafael spreads seeds from a special tree across the doorway to prevent La Llorona from entering their home.  The scene where that barrier of protection is compromised is exceptionally intense.

The Curse of La Llorona is a very efficient horror movie.  Evaluating the way it’s constructed is kind of like looking for the nutritional value in cotton candy or analyzing the plot of a roller coaster.  This is a pure yet simple entertainment.  You’ll laugh at how openly guileless the production is in eliciting frights.  In a scant 93 minutes, director Michael Chaves piles on more jump scares per minute than any film I can remember.  That is a backhanded compliment.  The technique of creating surprises with an abrupt image accompanied by a loud sound is perhaps the laziest way to frighten the viewer.  Nevertheless, there’s a certain satisfaction in getting the very basic requirement of what you paid for.  Unfortunately, that’s all you get.

04-18-19

Pet Sematary

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on April 8, 2019 by Mark Hobin

pet_sematary_ver3STARS3.5It’s been 30 years.  Pet Cemetery was ripe for a remake.  Oh pardon me, that’s S-E-M-A-T-A-R-Y.  Although a hit in the spring of 1989, the original isn’t held in particularly high regard.  Additionally, author Stephen King has never been hotter.  His novel It was reworked for a second time as two theatrical features in 2017 and 2019.  Even accounting for inflation, Part 1 became the biggest box office success of a Stephen King property ever.  This critic wasn’t a fan actually.  I’d have to go back to 1408 to find something based on the author’s work I enjoyed so I wasn’t highly anticipating this.  I’m happy to say that this is the best Stephen King adaptation in over a decade.

The best horror movies establish an evocative mood.  There’s something really eerie about a burial ground.  A graveyard for animals is even creepier still.  Now add the fact that I’m not a cat person.  Just the set-up of Pet Sematary is inherently scary.  Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) has relocated his family from Boston to rural Maine.  His wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their youngsters, daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence), and son Gage (Hugo & Lucas Lavoie) are getting used to their new surroundings.  Their home deep in the woods affords them peace and quiet.  The acres that now make up their backyard also includes a pet cemetery used by the locals.  While out walking one day, Rachel and Ellie come upon a funeral procession of children in frightening animal masks.  One malevolently beats on a toy drum.  The spectacle is even more menacing than it sounds.  When Ellie tries to climb beyond a tangled mass of fallen trees and brush, she is stopped from going any further by the Creeds’ well-meaning new neighbor, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow).  We’re immediately curious about what lays past the deadfall.  The unsettling unknown is often scarier than the actual reveal.

The chronicle relies on an emotional core.  The screenplay doesn’t treat grief as some throwaway concern, but an emotion with which one must come to terms.  We learn early on that mother Rachel was traumatized by the passing of her sister Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine).  Death has always been a hard subject for her to talk about.  When the family cat Church is hit by a truck, she decides to hide this detail from the kids and simply say the cat ran away.  Louis and Jud go to bury Church in the established shrine.  However, Jud shares a bit of information with Louis that will change their lives forever.  Pet Sematary is a horror reflection that contemplates bereavement.  Perhaps these harsh realities of life are better to accept than to reject.

This is a simple drama unencumbered by extraneous details.  Matt Greenberg (1408) has slightly changed the story from one of Stephen King’s shorter novels.  This may anger some King purists.  I don’t worship the text so it’s didn’t faze me.  Screenwriter Jeff Buhler (The Prodigy) has adapted the source for directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes) who take a refreshingly spartan approach to the proceedings.  This is a bare-bones study with effective scares and a chilling atmosphere.  As we’ve recently seen in Hereditary and Us, a performance can greatly enhance a production.  11-year-old actress Jeté Laurence gives a nuanced portrayal.  Ellie Creed is a complex role worthy of an actor twice her age.  Unfortunately, the developments succumb to blood and guts violence in the final act.  I’m not a fan of viscera.  Then again it probably wouldn’t be Stephen King if it didn’t include some.  Thankfully this tale depends more on emotions than gore.  The sophisticated craft is markedly better than the silliness of the 1989 version.  Christopher Young’s ominous score adds to the disturbing milieu.  The ambiance is a mounting wall of impending dread.  I “dug” this Pet Sematary.

04-04-19