The Burning


The Burning (1981)
★ / ★★★★

Clearly influenced by Sean S. Cunningham’s “Friday the 13th,” “The Burning,” too, takes place in a lakeside summer camp where a deranged masked killer slaughters hormonal teenagers one by one until a most predictable final chase scene in the dark—one last “Gotcha!” moment included. So it immediately begs the question: Does this film, penned by Bob Weinstein and Peter Lawrence, have something new or exciting to bring to the party? No, it does not. It is uninspired and underachieving for the most part… yet I did not find it to be completely worthless.

I found this picture capable of rivaling Robert Hiltzik’s “Sleepaway Camp” when it comes to establishing a convincing camp setting. Young people are all over the place; there is almost always something happening in the background or on the side of the screen. Even posters on walls, magazines on desks, snacks and knickknacks on shelves are eye-catching.

Notice that during the first half, time is taken to introduce the main players: The mature and kindly camp counselors Todd and Michelle (Brian Matthews, Leah Ayres) who clash at times in terms of how to handle their charges when they misbehave; the bully Glazer (Larry Joshua) and his constant target of ridicule Alfred (Brian Backer); Alfred’s energetic bunkmates (Jason Alexander, Ned Eisenberg, J.R. McKechnie) who see Glazer more as a big lug instead of a tormentor (they are not afraid to fight back); and various girls who swoon every time a boy pays them the most modicum amount of attention. There is a sense of joy in simply watching these characters be while in summer camp. There were moments when I thought the material could work as a comedy.

However, the handling of the killer is completely wrong. His name is Cropsy (Lou David), once the caretaker of a neighboring camp, Camp Blackfoot, whose body is so badly burnt due to a prank gone wrong that it took him five years to recuperate in the hospital. Skin grafts did not take. This figure is supposed to be so angry, so thirsty for revenge that a prostitute, who had nothing at all to do with the prank, triggers him, not yet an hour into his release, to impale her with a set of garden shears in cold blood. We hear urban legends about Cropsy and how evil he was even before being barbecued. But not once do we get to really feel this monster’s mean streak, his wickedness. He has a mask but without a personality.

Strange, too, is the fact that we rarely get a chance to have a good look at him. Watch closely: Director Tony Maylam has a curious habit of putting us in the perspective of the killer, hiding real low in the bushes like an animal. However, it is apparent that Maylam roots for the young characters to make it and so allowing the viewers to see the action—even the murders themselves—from the killer’s eyes is completely inappropriate. I felt an awkwardness, a disconnect, a lack of a defined vision. It might have been the better choice to show the antagonist—full-bodied—from time to time no matter how ridiculous he looked. Confidence goes a long way while insecurity is blinding.

I enjoyed the make-up effects by Tom Savini. Particularly memorable is the raft scene when Cropsy attacks and disposes of five teenagers within seconds: throats are slashed, fingers are cut off, a number of them impaled. It is violent, shocking, well-edited, and the convincing practical effects amplify the horror. If only the rest of the material functioned on this level.

Sleepaway Camp


Sleepaway Camp (1983)
★★★ / ★★★★

Robert Hiltzik’s “Sleepaway Camp” does not hide the fact it has been inspired by Sean S. Cunningham’s “Friday the 13th.” Both are slasher films with some psychological leanings. Both take place in a summer camp. Both contain an archery kill scene. Similarities stop there, however. This is a bit more versatile with its horror in that terrible happenings are not solely reliant on somebody getting stabbed, slashed, or maimed. On the contrary, the first time a typical murder weapon is employed occurs at around the hour mark—more than two-thirds of the way through. The other side of that violence comes in the form of bullying. The target is Angela (Felissa Rose), a first-time camper in Camp Arawak whose extreme shyness rubs others the wrong way. They don’t know how to deal with her silence.

The movie is not interested in parading one kill scene after another. Surprisingly, it goes out of its way to show how camp life is like for the male and female campers. They may live in the same area with similar cabin layouts, but their experiences are different. Notice that the boys are often shown at play, very physical, there must always be a winner and a loser. To lose is to walk away with shame. Boys may clash but there is a general sense of camaraderie. Girls, on the other hand, are almost always shown in their cabins hanging out, drying and brushing their hair. Unlike the boys, when girls clash there is a meanness, particularly between Angela and Judy (Karen Fields), the latter the boys wish to get with because she has… matured physically since last summer. Although Judy commands many of the boys’ attention, she covets a special kind of attention that Paul (Christopher Collet) gives Angela.

In a way, the mystery is not reliant upon revealing the identity of the killer. Anyone who is paying attention half the time is bound to notice that whenever something unpleasant happens to Angela—for instance, a threat of molestation, humiliation in when it comes to romance, or being thrown into the lake fully clothed—the incident is conveniently followed by a kill. Clearly, the murderer is someone who is either close to Angela (her cousin Ricky played by Jonathan Tiersen who gives a natural but standout performance), someone who admires her from afar or nearby (Collet who shares cute chemistry with Rose), or it could be Angela herself. I enjoyed that who is doing the killing is not all that important. What matters more is why.

And therein lies the picture’s biggest shortcoming: the screenplay fails to dig deeply enough when it comes to the psychological angle of its curious story. We are presented two or three flashbacks that may hint at a possible motive, but the connective tissues among these scenes are neither written nor executed in such a way that is truly compelling, however unique. It is a shame because gender roles coupled with societal expectations is one of the main themes of the story, but the screenplay is either undercooked or not as informed as it thinks it is. Without revealing too much, I believe that in order to subvert an idea, it must be understood fully.

Regardless, I found “Sleepaway Camp” to be worthwhile. I admired its ability to take risks (even some of the robotic and awkward acting can be very amusing) and its willingness to take a strange idea of a twist and run to the finish line held high. It could have used ten to fifteen more minutes to explain, but argument can be made that it isn’t necessary because the punchline has been delivered. What is there to say when the point itself is to shock or horrify? Another element I liked: not only are kills quite varied but the cosmetics and special effects are quite eye-catching. I wanted to look closer at the burns, the bee stings, the face of a person who had drowned and been in the water overnight.

Emma.


Emma. (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Despite being completely ignorant of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel of the same name, I had some idea of what I was in for due to the Austen brand: British high society, colorful and detailed clothing, beautiful estates and stunning outdoors, delectable food and expensive silverwares, posh dialogue that will bore most to tears. But something I did not expect: a titular character so unlikable, I likened her, at least initially, to a snake slithering in tall grass—always on the lookout for her next romantic project because she considers herself to have a such green thumb when it comes to matchmaking. In reality, she is terrible at it; not only are her chosen pairings devoid of chemistry, the futures we imagine for them is bleak and miserable.

Clearly, the work is a satire of class. From the opening frame it appears hyperbole is in its marrow as we follow the young and wealthy Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) sniffing flowers in the greenhouse while accompanied by help holding some sort of lantern—in broad daylight. This picture is peppered with so many quirky details that at some point I had to wonder if such elements were simply meant for laughs or if these were in fact accurate depictions of lifestyles at the time. In either case, I found entertainment and engagement in what is shown on screen; the direction by Autumn de Wilde is energetic, the script is witty, and there is terrific timing in the execution of the jokes—visual, aural, and what is simply felt given what we come to know about the characters and what they don’t know about one another.

The first half is an orchestra of Emma’s vanity and sheer ignorance of romance and romantic feelings—there is a difference—when she herself has never been in love and has declared never planning to marry. Taylor-Joy plays Emma with a certain slyness, an intelligence far beyond the character’s age and experience, and so I felt compelled to catch up to her and try to figure out her long-term goals when it comes to lovebirds she’s cramming into a cage.

Her arrogance is disgusting at times, especially when she looks down on the people whom she considers to be lower than her, whether it be in terms of money, reputation, education, or biology. (She is especially disapproving of the farmer that her most recent project, Harriet [Mia Goth], has her eyes on.) Despite Emma’s bad behavior, those within and outside of her social circle still feel obligated to look up to her, trust her, respect her. I think there is honesty in that depiction of the character. The privileged tend to get away with a whole lot.

Given she is our heroine, it would have been far too easy to overlook or excuse Emma’s wrongdoings after just one incident that blows up in her face. No, the screenplay by Eleanor Catton is correct to give the audience plenty of time to watch Emma feeling like—and realizing—the rotten person she has become (no matter how well-intentioned she is at times). Catharsis comes in the form us seeing the character we wish to root for finally realizing the errors of her ways. It does not depend on whether or not she finds a man to fall in love with (Johnny Flynn, Callum Turner)—although this subplot is present and possesses some level of predictability.

I think those who dive into the film with an open mind will find themselves surprised at some point. “Emma.” is not a tight-lipped, straight-faced, deoxygenated period comedy-drama. There is a risk-taking modernity in how Austen’s progressive source material is translated on screen. Choose to look beyond the heavy clothes, palatial homes, and how people speak. You’ll recognize a number of the things we still struggle with, individually and as a society, two centuries later. Only in this and age toxic influence is amplified by social media.

Harriet


Harriet (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Daddy warned me, “Boy, having a favorite slave is like having a favorite pig. You can feed it, play with it, give it a name, but one day you might have to eat it or sell it. You know it, and the pig knows it. If you have to sell it, there’s no more guilt than separating piglets. And if you have to eat it, you’ll forget its name.”

When Kasi Lemmons’ “Harriet” demands to look at slavery in the eye, it is impossible for one’s attention to waver. Slaves are not people but animals. They are expected to be obedient, to be quiet, to work their skin raw. They are to be owned, sold, traded. They are even required to get permission on who to marry. When the picture simply shows the reality of black people living in the slave state of Maryland during the 1840s instead of dramatizing, it works. It is communicated to us with clarity and urgency why the story of Harriet Tubman, a slave who escaped from her master’s plantation to become a freedom fighter, is worth telling, why her legacy is worth honoring. I give the film a marginal recommendation—with crucial caveats.

It is historically accurate that Tubman was a devout Methodist. Her relationship with God was a part of who she was and this fact must be included in this film should the filmmakers wish to paint a complete picture of the subject. But must it be so ham-fisted? Notice there is a holy vision nearly every ten to fifteen minutes which hampers the momentum of the drama at times, particularly during the second half when Tubman is attempting to rescue her friends and family across a hundred miles of dangerous territory between Maryland and Pennsylvania.

The terrific first half details at which point in her life she started receiving such visions and what her body goes through when premonitions go through her. But it becomes so recurrent later on that there are instances when it is almost a joke—deadly because the escape sequences are supposed to be harrowing, heart-pounding, even terrifying. There is no second chances when it comes to furious, gun-wielding slave owners looking for somebody to answer for their “stolen properties.” Surely there must have been a better way—subtler way—to tell us that Tubman’s spirituality helped to guide her decisions. It is so heavy-handed at times that on occasion all that is missing is a floating halo above Tubman’s head.

It is a shame because Cynthia Erivo is wonderful as Harriet. I’m convinced she is one of the best performers working today. Like the legendary Meryl Streep and Viola Davis, Erivo excels in quiet moments, effortless in just being the character instead of acting or forcing a thought or an emotion. A standout: Minty, now called Harriet since her freedom, returns to the Brodess plantation with the intention of rescuing her sister. Standing right outside the window, Erivo communicates paragraphs using only her face as Harriet watches her sibling, still a slave, do what she’s told. Although only a couple of feet away, they might as well be thousands of miles apart. It is a heartbreaking scenario which wonderfully captures what the movie is about: the value of freedom and why it is worth fighting for.

Another misstep involves the material’s treatment of important figures who helped Harriet in Philadelphia before she became a “conductor” (a person who leads enslaved African-Americans to freedom) in the Underground Railroad: abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe), a black woman who was born free and runs a boarding house for fugitives. We are provided only superficial details about them—a mistake because if it weren’t for their help, Tubman would not have gotten as far as she did. There are a number of emotional scenes in the second half involving these two characters, but these are unconvincing because we do not get a chance to get to know them outside of introductions.

“Harriet” is a well-intentioned biographical drama, but I feel as though a much better film about Tubman is yet to be made. Her story is already poignant. So just tell like it is—no need to cheapen it with sentimental score, otherworldly visions, and a formulaic three-arc structure.

Drive


Drive (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The carefully calibrated “Drive,” based on James Sallis’ novel, is not dissimilar to pulse-pounding thrillers like the Coen brothers’ “Blood Simple.,” Dominic Sena’s “Kalifornia,” and the Wachowskis’ “Bound.” These four films not only start off slowly, their premises promise rather standard fares. About halfway through, however, their curious stories start to take shape and their true forms are revealed. The protagonists are people who have their backs against the wall. They must survive or perish. What makes these stories compelling is not the template but the manner in which they are told. A case can be made that “Drive” is a mood piece above all.

This approach is almost necessary considering that our protagonist is mostly silent. He has three part-time jobs: a mechanic, a Hollywood stuntman, and a getaway driver. He is given no name. (I will refer to him as The Driver henceforth.) He values his solitude. He minds his own business. Strictly professional. Cold. Impersonal. When asked questions, answers can be found in his eyes or his body language. On the occasion he does speak, he gets to the point. Less than ten words with real intention behind each one. I cannot image anyone else playing The Driver other than Ryan Gosling. He will be remembered for this role.

An expected plot device: The Driver is shown to be capable of caring for others. Specifically, he grows attached to his neighbors: a waitress (Carey Mulligan) and her young son (Kaden Leos). His relationship with Irene and Benicio is handled with genuine humanity and a real sense of style. For example, typical lines of dialogue, which is a potential minefield of clichés, are muted. Instead, a synth-heavy soundtrack is placed over the action—robotic and repetitive on the surface but listen closely: lyrics are filled with sadness and longing. They find a connection precisely because of their loneliness. Irene’s husband (Oscar Isaac) is in jail. It is expected, too, that he will be released just when The Driver and Irene begin to consider taking what they have a bit further. Clearly, tension is not always reliant upon car chases.

Car chases demand that we hold our breaths. It is not interested in good guys and bad guys shooting guns at each other. No, emphasis is placed on stealth as The Driver attempts to get his clients (often thieves) to safety within five minutes after leaving the scene of the crime. Notice that in these scenes, we are locked in the car with our protagonist. No score, no soundtrack. We hear breathing, gasps, tires rubbing against the pavement. It gets so silent and so still at times, we feel our chests pounding from anticipation. Eyes wide open. The work offers a first-rate experience. It requires skill, great timing, a real eye for action and reaction.

By the end of the movie, more than half a dozen people are dead and there is blood money. I’m not interested in introducing the players, but know this: they are played by terrific character actors like Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, and Ron Perlman. They know how to command a scene simply by standing in one spot and giving a look. There is wonderful chemistry among all the performers. I felt as though everyone had signed up for the film because they believed in it, that they actually wanted to be there and do the best job possible. It shows.

“Drive” is an ensemble piece. The chess pieces are moved into place in a way that is logical, exciting, and thrilling. Viewers might remember it for the violence—they are brutal, in-your-face, and real bloody. However, notice that these scenes often have a point. They are never gratuitous or glamorized; it shows, for instance, that a hammer to the hand is especially painful, that kicking one’s face in is ugly and gross, that one car crashing against one another is loud and disturbing. In this story, violence is a means of survival.

The Old Guard


The Old Guard (2020)
★ / ★★★★

For a movie that involves immortal mercenaries, it is incredibly frustrating that “The Old Guard,” based on the graphic novels and screenplay by Greg Rucka, only takes off during the final act. The majority of the picture is a dirge: philosophical musings galore about what it means to live forever, having to endure seeing loved ones get old and die, the lack of purpose outside of their identity as a unit, questioning when their lives would end—if ever. When the action dies down, the work is a potent sleeping pill; why isn’t it any more fun?

The answer lies in a screenplay that never stops beginning. We meet the original four mercenaries: Andy (Charlize Theron), Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). We observe them perform a job, particularly at how effective they are in what they do. For them, to shoot a man dead is like exhaling—it is second nature. But before we get to know each individual, a new immortal emerges. She is named Nile (KiKi Layne), a U.S. Marine who “died” after getting her throat slit during a mission. The movie then becomes a montage of showing the ropes. Cue the Andy the leader bonding with the new recruit. Of course there must be a hand-to-hand combat between them. In a plane, no less. Just to show who’s boss. Guess who wins?

For the most part, I couldn’t help but feel bored during the first half because it feels too much like an origin story. Potentially interesting characters are at play but they are saddled with repetitive dialogue which lacks both dimension and conviction. Notice how the lines uttered tend to describe thoughts and feelings instead of simply showing us. A work being an action film does not justify a reductive approach. As a result, the film fails to become a thoroughly enveloping experience, a project that feels special, different, or unique every step of the way.

If these aren’t enough to test the patience, the picture is also saddled with flashbacks. While the content of the flashbacks is curious at times—far more intriguing than the five mercenaries sitting around waiting to be captured by men who work for a pharmaceutical company, led by the archetypically evil scientist Merrick (Harry Melling) whose goal is to make billions and prolong human lives… in that order—these are mere asides. Images of centuries past are so eye-catching, at one point I wished that the story, for instance, focused on Andy, her partner Quynh (Van Veronica Ngo), and their adventures together. Rescuing women who have been accused of being witches in Salem is far more interesting than mopey immortals in modern times.

Like the dialogue, action scenes are painfully standard. The highly stylized choreography did nothing for me because I felt like I had seen them all before–quick cuts, long takes, sounds of bones being crushed. It works in the “John Wick” sequels because its universe, plot, and main character function on a high level. Here, the energy feels flat. It doesn’t inspire the viewers to want to lean closer to the screen and absorb all that’s happening.

“The Old Guard” is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, but it might as well have been directed by an A.I. that had been fed with the most wan and generic action movies. I felt no purpose in this, no passion, no deep thought or even a modicum of originality. It’s just junk food—not even the tasty kind but one that’s flavorless, leaving a chalky taste in the mouth. It promises a sequel, but the foundation is off to such a rocky start that not one element manages to gain a strong footing. Its frothy decorations are not entertainment but an insult to the intelligence.

The Beach House


The Beach House (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Somewhere inside “The Beach House” is an intimate but ambitious horror story in which microorganisms from the ocean threaten global takeover. But the work, written and directed by Jeffrey A. Brown, is a disappointment for the most part because it fails to engage viewers in ways that do not rely on the usual tropes of independent filmmaking: slow as molasses pacing, constant flashing and overexposure of lights during the climax, transitory images of nature and other curious phenomena. At times it is too artsy for its own good which distracts from the visceral experience it offers. In a movie like this, I argue it is more impactful to tell or show the story straight.

I appreciated the performances by lead actors Liana Liberato and Noah Le Gros who play Emily and Randall, a couple who decide to get away and try to put their relationship back on track. Although they expected some alone time together, it turns out that that the beach house that Randall’s father owns is already occupied by another couple, Mitch and Jane (Jake Weber, Maryann Nagel), friends of Randall’s family. I could feel Liberato and Le Gros attempting constantly to wring out every bit of emotion from a rather bland script, but there are instances when even they are unable to provide further dimensions from what is written on the page.

I wished they were challenged more because the dinner scene, for instance, when Emily and Randall describe their backgrounds and aspirations (she an aspiring scientist; he a college dropout who hopes to forge a path outside of the standard route of college-diploma-marriage-mortgage-kids), there is genuine engagement there. It made me wish to learn more about Emily and Randall, both as a couple and as individuals, outside of the horror angle of the story.

When the picture finally evolves into a full-blown body horror, it is disappointing that there is only one or two memorable scenes. While I do not require first-rate special and visual effects (there are good ones here: giant clams, worms inside feet, faces appearing to melt or decompose, goo dripping out of faucets), I do expect constant creativity whether it be in terms of expanding ideas, delivering plot surprises, or providing simple but solid scares. Instead, numerous scenes are reduced to our injured protagonists dragging their sweaty and tired bodies from one location to another.

It becomes a trial to sit through. And when we do hear news from the radio or television, which is supposed to shed light on what is going on in other coastal areas—possibly on a global scale, the announcements are barely audible, staticky, and so often interrupted or cut abruptly. Emily and Randall must then continue to find another shelter. It becomes repetitive and a bore.

While it is easy to recognize what the film is going for, there are other, better movies that have traversed similar avenues. A few that quickly come to mind: John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” Frank Darabont’s “The Mist,” Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” and, most recently, Richard Stanley’s “Color Out of Space.” When you put this film right alongside these titles, it just doesn’t stand out. I am, however, looking forward to the writer-director’s next project. I think he has the imagination, the talent, and the will to make a film worth remembering.

The House of the Devil


The House of the Devil (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

Although this lo-fi horror picture does not push the satanic cult subgenre in new directions, its back-to-basics approach is a welcome change from the more ostentatious, loud, try-hard offerings from less disciplined filmmakers. Writer-director Ti West chooses an economical route: tell the story straight from the moment our heroine takes on a babysitting job up until she has lost everything—which unfolds in just under twenty-four hours. Although the pacing is slow on purpose, there are plenty of details worthy of soaking in should one be willing to look.

Before Samantha (Jocelin Donahue who delivers a terrific performance) sets foot in the house of horrors, we get to know her as a college sophomore who is in desperate need of cash. We learn precisely how much is in her bank account and how much she needs come Monday (the story takes place on a Wednesday) in order to secure a new place. We also get to appreciate why Sam wishes so badly to move out of her dorm; her roommate is a slob and doesn’t care that she gets in the way of other people’s space and time. Greta Gerwig plays Megan, Sam’s best friend who is full of personality.

The film commands a certain look of creepiness, a misty look about it that reminds me of horror films from the late 1970s and early 1980s. This is especially noticeable of scenes shot outdoors. As Sam walks around campus before Christmas break, there is barely anyone around. The camera functions almost like an onlooker, perhaps even a stalker, as she makes her way to a bulletin board, a payphone, her bed, to the restroom where she cries. But taking on this perspective is not meant to be scary or alarming. On the contrary, I felt it captures how lonely Sam must feel sometimes. She’s the quiet, bookish type, always with her walkman on. We wish to protect her because we know what she’s about to walk into.

We meet the employers, Mr. and Mrs. Ulman (Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov), and no effort is made to cover up the fact that they are indeed up to no good. West has fun with these suspicious figures, he at the very least six-foot-five with his cane and she with her stern expression and rather… curious way of phrasing certain things. The assignment is supposed to be minimal work: Just hang out downstairs, order pizza, and be wary of emergencies. Four hours of Sam’s time for $400. Megan claims it is too good to be true. She has no idea how right she is.

Much of the babysitting job involves Sam exploring the house. This is when most viewers who are expecting constant jolts will likely end up frustrated or disappointed. I admired its restraint. Although we hear strange noises, it makes sense that Sam goes to investigate because it is her job to make sure that everything is all right with the person she must care for. There is a door she dares not open, but a masterstroke involves the writer-director revealing to the audience what exactly is behind it. This is a classic case of choosing suspense over horror. To choose horror over suspense would be for Sam to open that door. She reacts and we react, too. She never does. But because we know and she doesn’t, we wriggle in our seats.

“The House of the Devil” is ninety percent setup and ten percent payoff. But that ten percent is memorable, visceral, violent, and cathartic. It is at this point that West proves his project is not simply a nostalgia trip. The denouement is modern and in-your-face but never gratuitous. Chaos ensues but the filmmaker remains control of his craft (none of that camera acrobatics). It is confident from the eye-catching opening credits right down to the unsettling final shot. Here is a movie that wallows in quiet. But when it gets loud, literally and metaphorically, it is almost deafening.

They Nest


They Nest (2000)
★ / ★★★★

The critter-feature “They Nest,” written by John Claflin and Daniel Zelman, offers no intrigue or bite. Instead, it presents a series of potential subplots that go nowhere, often brushing the main plot involving killer cockroaches off to the side. But a movie like this has no need for pesky subplots because what matters is delivering a visceral experience. Put the cockroaches front and center, make them look as gross or threatening as possible, put a magnifying glass on these creatures so we can appreciate details down to the bristles on their legs, show what they can do in their natural environment, when they threatened, when they are ready to mate—and you’ve got a movie. For a ninety-minute picture, it feels closer to two hours because the padding comes thick and heavy.

Dr. Ben Cahill (Thomas Calabro), a recovering alcoholic, has been unable to perform surgery due to hand tremors. His superior suggests it might be a good idea for him to take some time off before he puts any more lives in danger. So, Ben takes a boat to Orr’s Island and decides to clean up the house that he and his former wife had purchased. But he is not the only new arrival. A corpse is washed up along the rocks and inside it is a cockroach, or what appears to be a cockroach, waiting to feed and reproduce. This tight-knit fishing community is about to be terrorized by creatures that have been around for millions of years. The setup is generic but not without potential. However, as the movie goes on, it proves to lack creativity and so there isn’t much entertainment value.

It asks us to care about a possible romance between Ben and Nell (Kristen Dalton), a woman with a can-do attitude, a good sense of humor, and a certain comfort in being in her own skin. Nell is far more interesting than Ben, on paper on top of Dalton’s enthusiastic performance, and so the further we get into the mystery, we are forced to ask ourselves why Ben is the central protagonist. Is it simply because he is a surgeon and knows how to cut people open? I think so. Because he does nothing special or memorable. Even when pushed around by the local drunks, he remains boring. Clearly, the man lacks spine—like the cockroaches in question. But must he lack a strong personality, too? He disappears completely, for instance, when the sheriff (John Savage) simply stands and breathes next to him.

The CGI cockroaches do not look great, but the quality of the visuals is not important to me. Most frustrating is a lack of originality in presenting these hardy creatures, details that are unique to this particular story being told. Sure, we see the bugs bursting out of bodies, attacking in swarms, and crawling from underneath kitchen appliances… but when a real-life encounter with one harmless cockroach is more terrifying or shocking than what the movie has in store, there’s a problem. What’s the point of sitting through this movie when you can take a stroll to the kitchen and experience horror first-hand? These are basic questions that the filmmakers should have asked themselves before shooting a single frame.

Directed by Ellory Elkayem, “They Nest” is also the kind of horror picture where it is all too easy to predict who will live or die. Good guys must live, bad guys must die. There is no subtlety. And, of course, the expected final tease is the threat of the creature inflicting its terror somewhere else. The movie is tired from top to bottom. In the middle of it, I thought of ways to improve the screenplay. I liked my idea of Ben coming to the island to exorcise his alcoholism, the bugs serving as metaphor for the demon that must be purged so he can go back to saving lives again. I would end it on an optimistic note, clear and precise. Far too many horror movies these days attempt to pull the rug out from under the audience during the last shot—even if it blurs the message of what the story is trying to communicate.

Lyle


Lyle (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Stewart Thorndike’s debut picture is obviously inspired by Roman Polanski’s horror classic “Rosemary’s Baby.” Like that film, this one is patient, more interested in building suspense rather than delivering thrills, and quite unsettling when all is revealed. But unlike that film, the writer-director, clearly skillful when it comes to establishing pacing and possessing a keen eye for making ordinary objects look sinister, is able to tell his story—about a pregnant woman who suspects that the manager (Rebecca Street) in the building intends to kill her baby—in just one hour. It is so impressive, that by the end of it I wondered why most pictures these days need to be at least eighty minutes. “Lyle” values our time.

And our intelligence. There is not one jump scare to be had here. No CGI monster or demon that appears from the dark. (No practical one either.) There are, however, shots of people looking at the very pregnant Leah just a little bit longer than they should. As if they admire her, hoping to touch her, taste her. Leah is played with terrific gusto and magnetism by Gaby Hoffman. Not only is she required to portray the raw physicality of pregnancy, she must convince us that her character’s every waking hour of grief and depression from having lost her firstborn is another weight on her shoulders. It is critical that we question her mental state at times. That perhaps she is only imagining that a person, or persons, is out to get her.

Additional pressure: Leah feels that her partner, June (Ingrid Jungermann), who works for a record company, is beginning to grow distant the more they become financially successful. Jungermann does a good job as the cooler of the two heads. Her June must be the anchor of their family, in a traditional sense, during a most tumultuous pregnancy. The performer is correct to leave the possibility that her character might be up to something menacing. (She works long hours. When questioned about it, it is ignored.) In a story like this, in order to be truly effective, we must suspect everyone. Because when we do, we watch a little more closely and we are engaged to read between the lines.

Suspense is not simply reliant on who is up to what (if any) or whoever is involved, real or imagined. I enjoyed the daring of the dialogue, particularly when characters say the painfully awkward things during the most inappropriate times. The therapy sessions (Ashlie Atkinson playing the marriage counselor) are firecrackers because it is the time and place where Leah and June feel they can express thoughts and feelings they tend to hide or cover up while at home. It is suggested to Leah that she is such in a deep state of grief that perhaps she has started to imagine things in order to cope. She’s not convinced this is at all the case. Are we?

“Lyle” is a true psychological horror in that it is able to a lot with sounds. Rapid, baby-like footsteps can be heard when it is only Leah and her firstborn in the house… while the toddler is in the same room as our heroine, sitting in one spot. Muffled exchanges can be heard in the walls. Leah opens the front door and catches the building manager, who is at least sixty years old, pretending to be pregnant and lactating. Really bizarre happenings. Familiar elements are there yet it still makes you wonder how all the creepy pieces will fit together. Or will they? It depends on perspective.

The Temple


The Temple (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Upon first glance all the ingredients are there to make a curious horror film: a solemn-looking protagonist with a mysterious past, a trip to a foreign country, coming across a creepy journal in a mom-and-pop shop, locals warning that the contents scribed on the pages is bad news so never pursue it, urban legends involving monks and missing children… Yet these do not come together in a way that is suspenseful, sensical, or satisfying. Instead, it feels like were are stuck on this trip to Japan with three bland Americans—best friends Kate (Natalia Warner) and Chris (Logan Huffman) along with James (Brandon Sklenar), Kate’s boyfriend who also happens to be a womanizer—with nothing interesting to do or say throughout the picture’s interminable eighty-minute running time. It isn’t because the performers share no chemistry nor is it due to the unconvincing acting. The work suffers from a basic screenplay problem: Instead of building upon the details of its mythos, which should function as the connective tissue between major plot points, it spends far too much time putting the characters in tired situations: getting lost in the woods, getting lost in an abandoned mine, getting lost in their emotions as to how they really feel toward one another. (Chris kinda-sorta likes Kate but she’s unavailable; James claims that Chris is not what he expected—whatever that means; Chris admits he likes James but we suspect baloney—or is it?) It feels too much like a soap opera. And get this: The movie treats its third-act “twist” as if it were an eye-opening revelation. Cue the “Gotcha!” flashbacks. In reality, it isn’t a twist at all—unless you’ve been born in a cave, lived there your entire life, and not seen a single horror movie.

Metamorphosis


Metamorphosis (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Kim Hong-seon’s “Metamorphosis” tries to inject new blood in the exorcism subgenre, but its aspiration is far more admirable than its execution. It has learned nothing from failed American demonic possession movies. It chooses ostentatious shocks, gore, and visual effects at just about every opportunity instead of focusing on telling a specific story—a personal story—of a family who moves into a new home following the patriarch’s brother, a priest, who lived with them at the time, having inadvertently killed a girl during an exorcism. It’s as fresh as a decomposing corpse.

If one just so happened to miss the opening sequence, one might assume that the material is a haunted house story; details are amorphous. Gang-goo (Sung Dong-il) is optimistic about the new home they had just purchased from an auction… that nobody was interested in bidding on. The wife, Myung-joo (Jang Young-nam), does not share his sentiment; she considers it a hassle, along with the middle child, Hyun-joo (Cho Yi-hyun), to have to uproot their lives due to Joong-soo’s (Bae Sung-woo) incompetence which led to a tragic death. The eldest daughter, Sun-woo (Kim Hye-jun), and the only son, Woo-jong (Kim Kang-hoon), on the other hand, are quite close to their uncle. They don’t mind the move so much, and they miss him.

The first act shows a bit of promise. We are given a few hints that this is a family who has lost, or in the process of losing, their faith. Myung-joo insists that all religious paraphernalia go in the basement. There is also a clever bit regarding a neighbor who makes loud sloshing noises in the middle of the night—clearly winking at the phrase “Hell is other people.” Maybe the recently purchased home is bad news, cursed, or simply unlucky on top of the uncle’s past clearly coming to haunt his loved ones. It is all a matter of time.

But connective tissues among the elements I’ve described are not fully ironed out. The bad neighbor is dropped less than halfway through; we get one flashback in the latter hour which provides no explanation that makes sense. Bizarre events occur in the newly purchased home like the devil taking the form of every family member… yet not one is convincing because the actors either choose or are instructed to overact.

We do not even get to feel or appreciate the love between two brothers, Gang-goo and Joong-woo, which proves to be critical later on due to handful of scenes meant to tug at the heartstrings. When not generic, elements are put together quite haphazardly; tension fails to accumulate because we are too distracted from trying to decipher the connections among the puzzle pieces. There is a difference between engagement and busy work. This is the latter.

Outside of the issues with the screenplay, notice that the filmmakers often feel the need to remind us that the budget is being used: characters fly across the room, the wind machine must be at max setting when the devil speaks (cue the deep voice, yellow contact lenses required), skin boils and lashes must look as disgusting as possible, dead animals must be hung on trees, there must be at least ten upside down crosses, floors must be covered in blood. It’s just too much—overcompensation for its lack of substance. It feels much longer than two hours.

The Lodge


The Lodge (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’ “The Lodge” is an excellent example of a movie so reliant on a third act twist that if one were observant enough to see through the fog and recognize red herrings—which isn’t difficult to do—the rest becomes a waiting game. I appreciated the intent: the goal is to tell a story, through the lens of psychological horror, about unresolved trauma and how it can ruin new chapters of its hosts’ lives even before they begin. In order for this to work, however, the screenplay must function both as a drama and a horror picture. It fails to excel in either category which leaves us an experience that is, for the most part, a slog to sit through.

It lays out the pieces in a clear and precise manner. Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh) are still in mourning due to the death of their mother (Alicia Silverstone). She had committed suicide after receiving news that her husband, Richard (Richard Armitage), wishes to marry his girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keough), former member and sole survivor of a Christian cult that committed mass suicide. Already there are parallel details worth noting. Six months after the mother’s death, and just in time for Christmas (of course), the siblings and their soon-to-be stepmother will spend time in a remote winter cabin in order to get to know one another better. (Richard has to leave for a couple of days due to work.) The children despise the new woman in their lives because they blame her for their mother’s death, and the girlfriend is… a bit off even though she is willing to try to make it work between her and the kids.

As the material busies itself with presenting pieces of the puzzle that will prove to be relevant later, I felt no drama emanating from the material. Sure, it’s sad that Aidan and Mia must learn to live without their mother, but the work fails to provide reasons why these two are interesting together or apart. They are not only given so little dialogue, they are left with little to do. I felt as though their anger is superficial and so when Aidan and/or Mia lash out at Grace, in subtle or overt manner, the whole thing comes across like a performance. The notes of action and reaction are present but not the music, if you will.

The same applies to Grace. For a woman who has endured so much physically and psychologically, this survivor is rather bland. Is she meant to be a shell of a person? It is not enough to show one online article of a terrible cult; we must have an appreciation of this particular group through the perspective of the one who lived to tell the tale. (Richard wrote a book about her experiences.) Keough attempts to wring out every drop of emotion in each scene—which is admirable—but I never believed the history of her character. We’re supposed to buy into it, I guess, because she’s a pill popper. By the third trip to the bedroom drawer because she finds it so stressful to interact with her future stepchildren, I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit—not because it is funny but because it is offensively reductive. What does Richard see in her?

Expect no scares; the approach is a slow descent to madness. Expect long takes. Expect plenty of shots of creepy portraits, ugly dolls, and large crucifixes. Expect silence, dim lighting, minimal score. A whole lot of snow. And shivering. Oh, John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is on TV at one point. It made me wish I were watching that terrific, exciting, horrifying movie instead.

Eventually, we are meant to question what’s real and isn’t, who to trust and who to suspect; what is happening and to whom. I was able to predict every step, but I enjoyed the snowy milieu and the feelings of isolation it invokes. The work is so atmospheric but little else to offer. At least it has the courage to end on a dark note. But even then I still felt there is no powerful punchline. Of course it had to happen; trauma and history repeating itself and all that.

Devil’s Gate


Devil’s Gate (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Here is a project with so many familiar ideas, it is near impossible to fit them all in one film and make them work. Written by Peter Aperio and Clay Staub, the latter directing the picture, at least “Devil’s Gate” cannot be accused of taking one shallow concept and stretching it too thin. What begins as story involving a guilt-ridden FBI agent (Amanda Schull) sent to investigate the disappearance of a mother and son (Bridget Regan, Spencer Drever) in the farmlands of North Dakota turns into struggle for humanity’s existence—ambitious but incredibly challenging to pull off without skilled writing.

The work is elevated by attractive practical creature effects—attractive in a sense that rubber suits and the like are appropriately covered in otherworldly mucus, teeth and fangs are menacing, their bony yet tender-looking fingers creepy as they wriggle about. Creatures vary in color, size, and ability. When visual effects are utilized, such as when a pole is used to prod one of the sac-like curiosities, it encourages the viewer to look a little closer. Tension increases as little hairs climb up the rod and begin to pull back collectively. It gives us a chance to gauge the intelligence—or instincts—of this thing we are looking at with morbid curiosity.

If only the dialogue were as polished. Milo Ventimiglia plays the husband and father of the disappeared. As Jackson, who, according to the townspeople, has been increasingly short-tempered and violent during the past few months, Ventimiglia is required to be menacing, almost monstrous as every seemingly insignificant thing may set him off, as shown during the film’s lackadaisical first quarter. But the dialogue he must sell is so cheesy, no effort of raising one’s voice or making it sound more gruff could mask the awful string of words.

Perhaps the better choice would have been to show the character function effectively in silence as we hear terrifying noises in the basement. By showing that these violent noises no longer bothering him, it may provide information about the kind of man he is, particularly his level of focus when something needs to get done. The film’s lack of strength when it comes to character details is not specific to Jackson. Even Special Agent Francis and the local cop tasked to take her around town (Shawn Ashmore) are given too many unnecessary expository dialogue to explain their motivations rather than simply showing or implying them.

Open-minded viewers, especially fans of “The X-Files” who are capable of sitting through the strangest episodes, may find some value in “Devil’s Gate.” I was entertained by it simply from the perspective of visuals—even the more ostentatious ones which I was surprised by given my low tolerance for CGI. While the experience it offers is not particularly horrifying or thrilling, it provides a number of unexpected left turns.