The Biggest Little Farm


The Biggest Little Farm (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

John Chester’s “The Biggest Little Farm” is a nature documentary that should be required viewing in schools because it is able to show the interconnectedness of life so clearly. It is one thing to learn about it in books, but it is on another level to see it unfold entirely. The film, which encompasses seven turbulent years, is funny, surprising, educational, quite sad at times, and it possesses to ability to make the viewer feel small, to inspire us to think about our place on this planet through the microcosm that is Apricot Lane Farms in Moorpark, California, an hour drive north of Los Angeles, a farm that was once so dead, the soil so dry, the new owners—John and Molly Chester—and their team had to build a station dedicated solely for composting in order to even have a chance of possibly reinvigorating 200 acres of land. I watched spellbound.

We are presented more than a dozen examples of interconnection and self-sustainability. For instance, the more cows brought and born into the farm, the more flies they attract since the cows produce more waste. The more flies there are, the more eggs they lay on excrement since the larvae requires nutrient-rich environment. And the more fly larvae, chickens could be brought in to feed on them. And so in the long run, farmers would spend less money on purchasing chicken food for hundreds, if not thousands, of chickens. The money could be used on other goods or investments… like bringing in more cows for meat, milk, and the like. It is amazing that although the picture offers a short running time of ninety minutes, it is incredibly efficient: we are provided one informative example after another without coming across like a lecture.

Also communicated clearly is why the Chesters decided to go for their dream of creating a traditional farm. “Traditional” meaning that diversity is paramount—a type of farm we see in children’s movies like “Babe” and “Charlotte’s Web.” You see, most farms nowadays are monotype—an egg farm dedicated for raising chickens, for example. Most amusing is that an adopted dog named Todd essentially triggered the couple’s decision to start actualizing their dream. And it is quite astonishing how the Chesters’ lifestyle changed through the course of seven years, beginning from a small, cramped apartment in Santa Monica, CA to the wide open spaces of a farm full of life. The journey is fascinating and hard work—to say the least. Once there is a solution to a problem, more problems arise. It requires constant creativity to be able to keep up with creating a successful farm.

Prior to the making of this terrific documentary, Chester has had experience in film. He commands a keen eye for interesting and beautiful images like piglets and calves being born, butterflies leaving their cocoon to take their first flight, owls roaming the night sky, hundreds of ducklings squeaking in a tiny box. Beautiful, too, in my eyes, is manure filled with maggots—held by a hand wearing no gloves. We also see corpses of chickens having killed by coyotes during the night. I appreciated that the picture’s idea of beautiful is not defined; it is interested in showing what is real and it is up to audience how to process the images they are given.

There is a joyous, celebratory feel to “The Biggest Little Farm” that I believe would appeal most to people who find a certain connection to nature. What is the movie about? It depends. Looking at it as a whole, I think it is about a quest for happiness. In the middle of the movie, the Chesters find themselves encountering so many issues on the farm—like pipe issues, toxic algae bloom, overpopulation of pests—but at the same time we consider the alternative: They could still be stuck in their tiny apartment in the city, their dreams still just dreams.

May the Devil Take You


May the Devil Take You (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

In the middle of this overlong supernatural horror film from Indonesia, I couldn’t help but admire Timo Tjahjanto’s willingness to put every trick he’s learned from ‘70s and ‘80s terror flicks into a blender and then force the mixture down our throats until we grow sick of it. It cannot be denied that the writer-director of “May the Devil Take You” loves both horror movies and horror images. But it also cannot be denied that the screenplay lacks critical details that would allow the story being told to stand out from its classic inspirations (Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead,” William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist,” to name a few) and modern contemporaries.

It starts off with great potential. Lesmana (Ray Sahetapy) is desperate to become rich and so he makes a deal with the Devil through one of its priestesses (Ruth Marini). The opening sequence is inspired because it feels specific to a culture. Sure, we get the usual blood sacrifice, circle of magic with a star in the middle, and creepy incantations. But what witchery involves, for instance, having to consume a lock of hair? It gets stranger from there. It is near impossible not to watch wide-eyed as bizarre images flood the screen. The introduction promises freshness, boundless energy, a good time.

But it is a nosedive from there. For years, Lesmana experienced financial success, particularly in making investments, but when he is required to pay the second time, he finds himself unable to deliver. Years pass and Lesmana is on his deathbed with a mysterious illness. His biological daughter, Alfie (Chelsea Islan), who he has not seen for a decade, decides to visit, perhaps to say goodbye. But Alfie is not the only visitor. From the moment she stepped into the hospital elevator, she feels there is a presence. Initially she chalks it up to exhaustion, her mind playing tricks on her. But then it appears again behind a hospital curtain, right next to her father.

And so we go through the oft traverse parabola of a loved one visiting a mysterious place out in the country in hopes of finding answers. In this case, Alfie goes to her father’s abandoned villa to find something that might help to cure Lesmana’s affliction. There is a curious angle to be had here. Unlike Alfie, Lesmana’s second wife, a former actress (Karina Suwandhi—quite villainous but ultimately underused), and his three stepchildren (Pevita Pearce, Sam Rafael, Hadijah Shahab) are already on the scene—not to find answers but to acquire valuable items they could sell. It is obvious that this is not just a story about having to fight the Devil.

It is also about biological and adoptive children finding commonalities through tragedy. A few questions worth considering: What does Lesmana mean to Alfie when he hasn’t been a father to her for a decade? What does Lesmana mean to his stepchildren when it is apparent that their mother loves his money more than the man? And how might the children move forward should Lesmana die? It doesn’t work because the dramatic foundations are largely absent.

More effort is put into how to make human levitation look convincing, how to make a possessed person crawling up the walls as creepy as possible, how to make breaking or cutting limbs look extremely gross and painful. While these horror images are given appropriate love and care, and some of them are quite impressive, it’s a challenge to become emotionally invested in the story when a similar level of effort is not given to character details and relationships. When new bonds are formed and then broken later on, notice it is a struggle to feel a thing. So then what is the point of telling this particular story? It might as well not have been told at all.

“May the Devil Take You” shows that just because inspirations are there doesn’t necessarily mean a picture is able to stand strong on its own. While it isn’t a requirement to be original, the human factor must be well-defined, it must possess a certain flow so that we buy into the changes the characters undergo, and it must make sense from an outsider’s point of view so we are able to sympathize and empathize with whatever is going on. Here, somewhere along the way the human element becomes an afterthought.

Weathering with You


Weathering with You (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

When writer-director Makoto Shinkai hams up the drama, “Weathering with You” becomes an intolerable and exhausting experience. The final thirty minutes of this animated film involving a runaway fifteen-year-old boy who meets a girl with the ability to control the weather simply by praying to the heavens is so tonally schizophrenic, it is downright laughable at times. It is not enough that an unusual summer storm threatens to submerge Tokyo. Our protagonist is hunted by the police like a common criminal. A person is held at gunpoint. Somebody goes missing. A child is taken to a counseling center against his will. I sat back in utter confusion and disbelief; I couldn’t wait for the awkward and uncomfortable turn of events to finally end.

There are few good ideas here. During the first act, it is established that Tokyo is a place where outsiders can run toward and find belongingness, perhaps even family. The material comes from an optimistic perspective, but at least the themes it attempts to tackle possess a semblance of focus and clarity. It is not blind to the dangers of, for instance, a high school dropout having to fight for survival in a city where crime and destitution are prevalent. It is necessary that Hodaka (voiced by Kotaro Daigo) be shown sleeping in the streets and having nothing to eat at times. And so when he crosses paths with fellow outcasts who have come to embrace the city as home, we wonder about their own histories and how their pasts might shape how they view and treat the newcomer.

Although undercooked, I enjoyed the subplot involving Hodaka being hired as a live-in, part-time employee by Keisuke (Shun Oguri), a middle-aged man running a two-person publishing company. We observe their day-to-day routine. We notice the way Keisuke regards Hodaka, that perhaps the man considers the boy to be younger version of him. Or perhaps the boy is a substitute for another person whom Keisuke cares deeply about. Or both. In any case, this father-son, employer-employee, local-transplant relationship could have been so much deeper. I think that had the writer-director been not so adamant about the teen romance being the centerpiece, this newfound connection would be the natural focal point.

It cannot be denied that the story is rooted in drama despite the magical realism that is weather control by means of prayer. The story takes off when Hodaka learns about Hina’s ability (Nana Mori). Since the two are living on their own, with Hina supporting her younger brother as well (Sakura Kiryu), they are desperate for money. And so the two decide to use Hina’s ability in order to make a quick buck. Given that Tokyo is experiencing a record-setting summer rainfall, people are desperate for sunny days. There is believable humor in the duo meeting all sorts of folks with their own stories to tell (a wedding, a death anniversary, an outdoor market, a child who wish to spend time with her father in the park, among others). The weather control angle is simply a device to tell humanistic stories—and it should have remained that way for the rest of the picture.

Instead, viewers are inundated with Hodaka’s fear of losing Hina. According to legends, those granted the power to control the natural elements are eventually spirited away. The problem is, the writing fails to evolve the romance past the boundaries of a teenage crush. Hodaka’s feelings for Hina is treated like some sort of great love—which it very well might be but we do not experience the relationship challenged or grow in meaningful ways. In fact, a case can be made that interesting bits are lost among montages (coupled with pop songs) designed to denote passage of time. I got the impression that Shinkai wishes to show a romantic love so epic that it rivals natural disasters. However, the necessary substance is just not there. And so the romance comes across contrived.

“Weathering with You” boasts eye-catching animation. Images involving rain and fireworks made me blink twice—I found some enjoyment in differentiating among hand-drawn animation, computer animation, and a mixture of both. They feel so alive. Realistic. Having said that, animation is simply a medium. Although elements that can make a terrific story are present here, they lack the connective tissues required so that they function as foundation. The romance on offer here is far from special.

Yes, God, Yes


Yes, God, Yes (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Karen Maine’s directorial debut needs a massive electric shock to the chest because it is dramatically and comically dead. For a story about a teenager who is raised in a Catholic household, attends Catholic school, and is neck-deep into the Catholic community, it should be filled to the brim with savage humor—and genuine humanity. After all, its purpose is two-fold: to underline the countless hypocrisies within such institutions (students of faith and leaders alike) and how such organizations tend to create young adults who are ill-equipped to handle the world outside of one’s bubble. “Yes, God, Yes” means well. But it is toothless.

Natalya Dyer plays Alice, our central protagonist who chooses to follow her curiosity. I enjoyed her performance for the most part; I believed the mix of horror and temptation in those eyes every time Alice faces new situations—often sexual—like receiving racy photos from hairychest1956@aol.com, being invited to partake in cyber sex, discovering the pleasure of masturbation, and learning about what “tossing salad” actually means. Dyer is required to walk the line between being naive and sheltered without coming across as dumb or stupid. She gives the impression that she’s aware of the fact that pushing the character to the latter extreme, especially a work peppered with satirical elements, is likely to make Alice unworthy of our time. She acts with intention, but the material is not worthy of Dyer’s talent.

The story unfolds in two places: at the Catholic school and at a four-day Catholic retreat. The former is a near waste of time—and film—when it absolutely should not have been. In smart comedies, expository sequences manage to lay out the stakes. In this film, we meet Alice but everyone else around her is a complete and utter bore, from Alice’s fair-weather best friend Laura (Francesca Reale), Alice’s crush Wade (Parker Wierling)—who has a girlfriend, to the by-the-book Father Murphy (Timothy Simons).

Although these supposedly key figures—ones who will help, inadvertently, our heroine to solidify her attitude toward living her own life, under her own terms, while still possibly holding onto her faith—attend the retreat with Alice, they are not given anything of note to say or do. Instead, they drop in and out whenever convenient to say the same things only using different words. Halfway through, we still wait for the supporting characters to act human. A comedy doesn’t work when everyone is a robot or a cardboard cutout. Where’s the funny in that?

We already know that religion and hypocrisy walk hand-in-hand. The writer-director appears to be stuck in this glaringly obvious and oft tread idea. What results is a lack of dramatic parabola. The movie is tonally flat; events happen but they offer no effective punchlines. Maine fails to evolve her story in a way that is believable, pointed, perhaps even heartfelt. I got the impression as though she thinks her audience are composed only of high school students who possess an extremely narrow definition of religion, that perhaps religion and faith are synonymous. We all know it isn’t. It’s more complex than that.

I felt neither challenge nor a daringness to this picture. If it is a passion project, I felt no passion from it either. With so many first-time filmmakers appearing to put their all into their debut piece, if what’s on display here is all what Maine has to offer, I question her as a storyteller. Because if that’s all there is, she’d be wise to find a new vocation. Still, I hope I am proven wrong in her next film. (If there is a next one.) It’s always nice to be surprised.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre


The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Remove the gruesome, in-your-face murders and mutilations and notice that “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” remains to be a thoroughly effective horror film. Inferior slasher films forget that violence does not define horror even though it is or can be a part of it. Director Tobe Hooper (who co-wrote the screenplay with Kim Henkel) commands a complete understanding of this simple but often overlooked idea. What results is a horror film for the ages: violent—yes—but also loud, uncomfortable, atmospheric, and filled to brim with unusual and downright chilling images. (A hammer being dropped on the ground repeatedly, for instance, allows us to appreciate its mass. And so we buy it when that hammer is used to bash in someone’s skull.) One does not walk away from this picture without a strong impression. It demands that you have an opinion.

Images outside of what we consider to be “typical horror” are seared into my brain. A terrified woman slides accidentally into a living room full of feathers. The camera observes with great patience; it allows us to appreciate what she finds to be frightening in that room. There are bones all around—most appear to be from animals but it is clear a few are human. But the bones are not randomly strewn about. They are used as decorations—a nudge to the real-life murders that Ed Gein committed. We notice the panic building in the woman’s body and eyes… yet she does not scream. At least not yet. Instead, we hear the manic clucking of a chicken in a cage from a few feet away, as if to communicate that this human is invading its space.

Another standout moment involves a second woman being driven from location to another. Her mouth is gagged, her hands are tied, and her head is covered with a sack. She lays on the floor of the passenger’s seat… which is important because it further underscores that she and her kidnapper are not on equal footing. Her assailant, the driver, holds a stick with his right hand and continues to hit her—and then laughing to himself—until they reach their destination, as if to remind her who’s in charge, who has the power. This is a work that does not rely on dialogue for meaning; it assumes we are intelligent enough to recognize what’s terrifying about a situation outside of the usual slicing and stabbing. It wants us to undergo an experience rather than simply sitting through one. There is a world of difference. And the answer lies in craft.

The plot revolves around Sally (Marilyn Burns) and her wheelchair-bound brother named Franklin (Paul A. Partain) who go on a trip, along with Sally’s boyfriend (Allen Danziger) and two friends (William Vail, Teri McMinn), to visit their grandfather’s grave. Word has gone around that a person, or persons, has been robbing graves and mutilating corpses. They did not plan to stop by grandfather’s abandoned house but one thing leads to another and they end up going there, unaware that right next door is a family of cannibals (Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, John Dugan). One of them wears human skin as a mask (Gunnar Hansen). We learn his name is Leatherface.

There is a rawness to this picture that I found to be beautiful and transporting. In its opening minutes, we can actually feel the heat of the sun by how sticky and sweaty the characters look inside their van. Their clothes are stained with sweat and grime. Perhaps they have not taken a shower for over a day. When they step outside, the photography highlights the dryness of the land. We see and hear heavy breathing when a person’s face captures the sun’s rays. We feel like one of the travelers and we already know it’s a very bad idea to pick up a hitchhiker.

Notice its use of sound. It assaults the eardrums. An obvious but important one is the revving of a chainsaw, Leatherface’s weapon of choice. When it roars, you feel it in your gut the whole time. Combine this sound when the masked killer chases after his victim. They run and run and run—in the dark, amongst dead trees, inside houses. Notice, too, how the distance between predator and prey tends to decrease over time. You are compelled to pull your limbs closer to your torso. And then the screaming begins. We stare into the victim’s desperate eyes in quiet surrender and wonder how the hell she can possibly get out of the house of horrors and live to tell the tale.

Night of the Living Dead


Night of the Living Dead (1968)
★★★ / ★★★★

It is without question that George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” has shaped the landscape of the modern zombie movie. But unlike most of its seedlings, this independent horror classic offers minimal gore. Due to budget constraints, it is forced to rely on steady pacing, mounting tension, precise framing between predator and prey, and smart timing when it comes to detailing information about the undead. It works because of its simplicity. By leaving just enough for the imagination, it lures us into its world where the line between the living and the dead is so tenuous that a friend or family member one minute can become a flesh-eater the next.

A portentous visit to the cemetery becomes a death sentence when siblings Barbra and Johnny (Judith O’Dea, Russell Streiner) come across a lumbering man in a suit. This is a terrific opening sequence because it underscores the material’s ability to change from silliness to viciousness at a drop of a hat. Observe closely during the first contact between the living and the undead. The camera does not observe from a distance or mere few feet away. It is placed in the middle of the scuffle, as if to highlight the size and strength of the assailant.

The dead might walk slowly, but it is not harmless even when by itself. When it is within grabbing distance, it takes advantage and it becomes a challenge to escape. It can be punched, kicked, scratched—but it feels nothing. The grip just gets tighter. A horde of zombies is another matter entirely. You can run. But they will walk and walk until you can run no longer. The desperate Barbra, too, notices that they do not take their eyes off her. She tries to hide, but they seem to always know where she is. What is scarier than knowing deep down that you will die and it is only a matter of time? This film plays upon this impending sense of doom all the way to the finish line.

Introducing colorful personalities for the slaughter is a trait that many zombie films have adapted and made their own. Here, one becomes seven before the halfway point, but the interactions between Barbra and Ben (Duane Jones), a black man who stole a truck to escape from fifty to sixty zombies near a diner, remains fresh. No, it is not because they find a special connection, or attraction, or some other nonsense that doesn’t fit into the survival story. It is the exact opposite: Barbra and Ben do not get to know each other.

In fact, Barbra remains traumatized from her encounter in the cemetery. These two are simply shown co-existing in a farmhouse that is slowly becoming surrounded by the undead. Sure, they conflict once or twice. But it is never personal. Every waking moment is a struggle for survival. The same cannot be said between Ben and the remaining personalities—heated exchanges that touch upon power and race. Keep in mind that this film was released when America was undergoing social and political upheaval. It cannot be denied that the Romero (who co-writes with John. A Russo) is making—not just a statement—but a stand in regards to human rights, specifically black rights in the US, as to say, “What is more horrific than racism?”

While I recognize the picture’s importance and numerous positive qualities, there are a number of continuation errors that cannot be overlooked. They occur enough times that encountering them took me out of the experience. An example involves Barbra, having just entered the farmhouse, deciding to go upstairs. She stops in her tracks because right at the top of the stairs is a rotting skull staring at her. She freaks out and remains downstairs. Later on, however, when Ben chooses to move the body, the corpse’s head is not rotten at all. In fact, it looks like a beautiful woman who’s simply asleep.

Another example: when a character is being stabbed to death with a trowel, notice that no blood spatter is shown during the time of the killing. But, toward the end of the scene, we see blood on the wall… but its consistency and pattern do at all match the feverish violence—it were as if somebody faced the wall and squirted corn syrup from a bottle instead of using a brush of some sort to make the image look more convincing. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with budget. These can be solved with a careful eye, a higher level of perfectionism, a willingness to get it right rather than simply having something on screen.

Regardless, “Night of the Living Dead” is a strong picture because it possesses real ideas and it is not afraid to offer specificity—traits that copycats sorely lack so it is to no one’s surprise that the majority of them end up becoming substandard. The best moments in the film are when characters simply listen intently to the radio and watch television as officials offer insights about the bizarre phenomenon and advice regarding what to do to stay alive. Less really is more.

The Nightshifter


The Nightshifter (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Dennison Ramalho’s “The Nightshifter” tells the story of an assistant coroner named Stênio (Daniel de Oliviera) who possesses the ability to talk to the dead. We do not go through the standard motions of the man discovering he has such a gift nor is it revealed to us that he does anything particularly special with it. To him, communicating with the flesh of those who’ve passed is like breathing; he does not even blink at the fact when the meat lying on the metal table—no matter how deformed or rotten—begins a conversation. It is most frustrating then that screenwriters Cláudia Jouvin and Dennison Ramalho fail to take such a terrific (and fun) premise in interesting and memorable directions.

About a third of the way through, it is reduced to just another story that involves a haunting. While some may claim that since the film is based upon the novel by Marco de Castro, it is tethered to follow the content within the source of material. This is incorrect. Those who pen the screenplay are responsible for ensuring that the movie rendition is fresh—even if it means jutting off in unexpected directions. Consider the landscape of horror films that touch upon hauntings. The list runs for about a mile. Now consider a protagonist who has accepted the fact that he can share words, feelings, ideas, and secrets with the dead. How many films come to mind?

When reduced to its most elementary parts, “Morto Não Fala” is a cautionary tale of jealousy. Stênio discovers that his wife (Fabiula Nascimento) is having an affair with a baker (Marco Ricca) and so the assistant coroner uses information—a secret—revealed by a corpse, who was a member of a gang, to his advantage. The overworked and underpaid Stênio believes that by getting rid of his competition, the way Odete sees him—and therefore their marriage—will improve. Stênio is dead wrong on all accounts. Naturally, his plan backfires.

The practical effects of cadavers being cut open and organs being stripped out are realistic and beautiful. I am tickled every time there’s a new body being delivered which means it is time to make that V-shaped incision and let the blood gush out. Effects involving corpses coming to “life” is a curiosity. It is a challenge to discern at times whether the face is actually moving or if CGI is employed. It looks off—but in a good way. A level of uneasiness is created when the dead body is moving its mouth. Stênio remains unperturbed.

The spooky happenings inside Stênio’s house command no excitement. It is especially lame when some ostentatious event—like Stênio waking up in the middle of the night and discovering that a room is completely covered with razor-sharp kite strings—is actually just a figment of our protagonist’s imagination. Burnt looking figures appear. And furnitures move on their own. The lives of Stênio’s children are threatened. A kind neighbor named Lara (Bianca Comparato) gets involved eventually. She’s dedicated to protecting the kids. And no one sits down to have a serious conversation about the supernatural goings-on they’ve just witnessed. So they never get a chance to move forward together and actually attack the problem in an effective way. It is all so pedestrian. These loud scenes not only drag, they do not reveal or underscore details regarding Stênio’s double-edged gift.

“The Nightshifter” begins with an exclamation point but ends with a barely a whisper. It is sad to experience the trajectory of what could have been a strong film that can be both horrifying and darkly comic and have its potential be thrown away to quench audience expectations. This also could have been an effective character study of a man who has a family but is quite lonely because his wife despises him and his son does not respect him. Couple that with a job that requires nighttime isolation—he is surrounded by the shells of what once were people who laughed, cried, got angry, exercised kindness and at times cruelty. Maybe a movie of that caliber will be made one day—hopefully by filmmakers who are so courageous and confident with the material that they approach their project without compromise.

Terrified


Terrified (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Those who have low tolerance for horror should avoid watching “Terrified” at night. The majority of sequences are so well-executed that even the most standard setups, like a person waking up in the middle of night due to strange noises, possess a punchline or two so frightening, images are certain to linger in the mind for hours—days for the faint of heart. Writer-director Demián Rugna has crafted an inspired horror film with no intention other than to scare the viewers witless. The first hour is wall-to-wall old-fashioned scares. This is no ordinary haunting.

In most horror pictures involving possible paranormal phenomenon, there is one place of interest. The template: a family is terrorized by a ghost, demonic entity, or some sort of apparition. In this story, however, an entire street is haunted. Three homes, three families. There is no expository dialogue. Right from the opening scene we are dropped into a house where a woman, planning to cook dinner, finds herself hearing voices coming from the kitchen sink. But not just any voice—it is speaking to her, telling her it wishes to kill her. Hours later, she is dead. You will watch wide-eyed regarding the circumstances of her demise. One house down, two to go.

What makes the picture so effective is Rugna’s decision not to rely on jolts. There is an abundance of them—accompanied by a booming score. But look closer. A jolt is delivered—some thing appearing out of the darkness, for example—and then the scene goes on for an extended amount of time. We watch it crawl out from under the bed. We note the color of its skin, its texture, we imagine its stench. We stare at those glowing eyes and gaping mouth. Then we listen to how it sounds. We look at how it crawls, or slithers, or jumps across the room. A character encounters this strange entity during a most vulnerable time, what is typically a time for rest, sleeping, and dreaming. But we are in the room with him or her experiencing the nightmare of being trapped with something so inexplicable, ugly, and threatening.

This case, or series of cases, is assigned to Captain Funes (Maximiliano Ghione), a man who has a heart problem and a hearing problem, due to retire in two months. The bizarre and deadly occurrences on the street are so baffling that he asks the help of a former colleague named Jano (Norberto Gonzalo), a coroner who has had paranormal encounters with the corpses he’d examined. Since he is open to alternative explanations, perhaps he can make sense of what’s going on. Soon there are a total of three paranormal experts (Gonzalo, Elvira Onetto, George L. Lewis) on the scene. Their strategy is to explore one house each. They seem to know exactly what they’re doing and they do not look afraid. But perhaps they should be.

We observe the paranormal researchers perform their jobs. They take out curious instruments from their bags. Some involve liquids, others detect changes in magnetic fields. We are offered no explanation, but we can infer on how things work based on where the camera focuses on a specific part of an instrument and when. Showing rather than telling—an approach that prevents derailing pace and decreasing tension. Mainstream American horror pictures should take heed.

I wished the final fifteen minutes were as strong as the rest. Although still watchable, the resolution comes across as too bland for a movie of this caliber. While a definite explanation in regards to the central mystery is not required since we can make assumptions based on the rich pieces provided to us, a throwaway ending is inexcusable. The final scene is so uninspired, it borders on forgettable. Surely there is a better way to close out an otherwise terrific film.

Motel Hell


Motel Hell (1980)
★★★ / ★★★★

Kevin Connor’s eccentric “Motel Hell” is a satire of terrible people—siblings Vincent (Rory Calhoun) and Ida (Nancy Parsons)—who genuinely believe they are doing God’s work by helping out with our planet’s overpopulation problem and food shortages. Their solution: kidnap unsuspecting folks, plant their bodies until neck-deep in the ground, slash their vocal cords so they cannot scream, fatten them up for weeks, then slaughter them when their bodies are good and ready to be cleaned, smoked, and mixed into the pork. Human meat is the secret ingredient of Farmer Vincent’s smoked meat—exclusively sold within a hundred mile radius. This may already sound like plenty of information—but this does not even scratch the surface. Another target to be satirized: American capitalism. Impressive about this film is its level of detail.

For most, the horror may come in the form of something standard or expected like Vincent sabotaging a remote road so that unsuspecting drivers would lose control of their vehicle and then crash into a ditch. Or Ida scrubbing down corpses before limbs are chopped off. But for me, true horror comes in the form of the duo’s precise methods of preparing their “product” (which they’ve perfected over the course of thirty years), how they interact with heads spurting from the ground (which can only make unsettling gurgling noises), their friendly and welcoming demeanor around motel guests and townsfolk. It is the more chilling that Vincent and Ida look so ordinary—for this is their mask. Their real selves are revealed when it is time to do God’s work. It is no accident that Vincent and Ida are always watching or listening to televangelists. Every breath they take is dedicated to the Lord.

There are nifty details peppered throughout the picture’s running time. Screenwriters Robert and Steven-Charles Jaffe assume that viewers who choose to watch a movie entitled “Motel Hell” have seen plenty of macabre stories, particularly films surrounding serial killers and cannibalism. And so they play upon certain tropes, from introducing a potential final girl (Nina Axelrod) who lost a lover early on, the cop who has no idea what’s really going on in his own town (Paul Linke), to the hypotheses we make in regards to what should inevitably happen to the story’s antagonists. I enjoyed that we spend more time with Vincent and Ida inside and around the motel compared to anyone else. We grow familiar with the geography of the place. Combining these elements, an argument can be made that we become accomplices to the pair’s crimes.

A bit of time is spent on a sort-of romance between Terry (Axelrod) and Bruce (Linke). I found the forced humor—which borders on slapstick at times—to be ineffective overall because the performers lack basic chemistry, but I appreciated the addition of this subplot since it adds a bit of humanism—and lightness—to the story. I found the angle surrounding Terry having discovered an attraction to Vincent, who is at least twice her age, to be the more intriguing relationship. Vincent’s responses to Terry’s advances are certainly more amusing than Bruce’s lame attempts to get Terry to notice him under a more intimate light. This isn’t to suggest that Terry is interesting on her own. On the contrary, I found her to be tedious outside of her attraction to a murderer. I felt the writers’ struggle in establishing a strong female protagonist.

Regardless, there is plenty to enjoy in “Motel Hell,” from the set decor of the secret garden where humans are planted and fattened, its incredible use of puns no matter the situation, to the consistency of its jovial and enthusiastic energy despite a morbid subject matter. It wears its influences on its sleeve such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” but never parodying them; it honors them by remaining true to its own path. Those with a taste for bizarre and forgotten films are likely to have a campy good time.

The Bridge Curse


The Bridge Curse (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Sigh. A movie like “The Bridge Curse” is not even worth a few keystrokes. It goes to show that mediocrity in the horror genre can be encountered across continents. Although this film is from Taiwan, it possesses the blandness American terror flicks in which the found footage style is employed without any regard on how to use it effectively to tell a specific story. In the end, we are forced to follow a group of cardboard cutouts who run around screaming due to the slightest strange noise from the bushes and falling at the most inopportune times. Are you bored yet?

But this is no slasher flick. It is a ghost story… involving a woman with long black hair wearing a white gown. Her name is not Samara or Sadako. But it might as well be because they look nearly identical. The supposedly scary figure here is so nondescript that she isn’t even given a name. We learn close to nothing about her background. Only rumors about the circumstances of her death. So why should we be scared of her exactly? Writers Keng-Ming Chang and Po-Hsiang Hao fail to provide the antagonist an intriguing mythos. More effort is put into what happens when a person enters a dark room. Cue the expected jump scares.

The basic plot is this: Four years prior, university students died following a “courage test” gone wrong. According to urban legend, the so-called Female Ghost Bridge is such a hotspot for paranormal activity that the thirteen steps located right alongside the lake becomes fourteen at the stroke of midnight. Should a person find himself or herself turning around for whatever reason while on the fourteenth step, he or she would be cursed. The students who died (J.C. Lin, Chang Ning, Vera Yen, Joe Hsieh)—all ruled suicide via drowning… even though most of the corpses were found nowhere near a body of water—committed exactly what they were warned not to do. A news reporter (Summer Meng) decides to investigate further.

And so we follow two timelines: the students who will not make it through the night and the reporter who suspects details might have been overlooked. The problem with the former is that since we already know the fates of the characters, it is critical that their experiences be so pregnant with tension that at times we forget they’re already doomed. But the exact opposite happens. Because they are written to be dumb, there are constant reminders of their fate. Worse, their deaths are so lacking in energy and creativity that each one simply drags.

The reporter angle is no better. We spend so little time with her that we never get a sense of her personality. Sure, she takes it upon herself to look into the strange “suicides.” Other than to get to the truth or further her career, what is it about this case that attracts her, compels her to dive deeper and deeper? There is no specificity. In Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu,” for example, the reporter dives into the case because it is her job but that motivation evolves when the curse finds its way to her son’s life. That is a character worth following because she eventually fights for something bigger than herself. In this film, there is none of the beautiful, tragic, or poetic details.

Expository and redundant, “The Bridge Curse” fails to do anything special that allows it to stand out as a supernatural horror. Its approach is to recycle the same old templates from better films that made their marks, including the clichés, with minimal energy. It is content in showing characters being scared without actually scaring the audience. What is the point of it?

Ringu


Ringu (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★

Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu,” based on the novel by Kôji Suzuki, is a horror film more interested in telling a strong story and establishing a consistent feeling of doom than delivering standard scares in which viewers are compelled to jump out of their seats. What results is a work that one cannot help but peer into, like gazing inside a crystal ball where a number of figures can be discerned but making sense of their meaning requires patience and an appreciation of how, for instance, a person’s trauma can have a ripple effect throughout one’s inner circle and eventually one’s community.

The plot revolves around a “weird video” in which, according to high school gossip, those who watch it have seven days left to live. Journalist Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima) decides to investigate if the urban legend is true considering that her own niece was supposed to have seen the video in question along with three friends—all of them died on the same day, exactly a week later since their trip up in the mountains. The expository sequences are fascinating because every scene provides curious information—necessary foundation to be able to ask the right questions which may then help to solve the mystery at hand. In a way, it is a classic detective story in that our protagonist must meet and talk to all sorts of people so that she—and we—can try to put together some puzzle pieces before the story goes into full gear during the second act.

Not only is there terrific patience in storytelling, the film is not afraid to envelop us in silence. The niece’s funeral scene is a standout. From the moment Reiko and her young son (Rikiya Ôtaka) step into the funeral, there is no score. We barely hear shuffling of bodies moving about. We do not even hear the cries of mourners. When people speak, they tend to whisper—as if going above a certain decibel might wake or disturb the dead. It is very creepy, but at the same time it underscores the sadness of—and trauma from—lives taken way too soon. It genuinely feels like we are in a place of grief. Even when Reiko’s son makes his way upstairs, notice the picture does not revert to cheap scares. The emphasis is on how much the boy misses his cousin. He looks at her room differently now that she’s no longer alive.

Another important player in the story is Reiko’s ex-husband, Ryûji (Hiroyuki Sanada), who possesses a sixth sense when it comes to detecting surrounding auras. I admired screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi’s decision in downplaying the idea that the likely reason Reiko and Ryûji divorced is due to his gift (or curse—depending on how one looks at it). There is a poetry shared between this man’s personal torment and the person responsible for the cursed VHS tape. I enjoyed the small moments when Ryûji finds himself relating to those who possessed special abilities but found themselves being rejected by society. “Ringu” is a story of outcasts.

The film can be criticized for lacking overt action. Its minimalism is precisely what I liked about it, which reminded me of the most humble but extremely well-written episodes of “The X-Files.” To inject chases, apparitions making direct contact with the living, a parade of jump scares, and the like would have taken away from the ruminative tone of the project. How can these elements fit when the point is to consider how one’s tragic pain can lead to lashing out at others? It asks us to empathize with “evil,” if that’s what it really is. That’s challenging. There is a confidence and focus to this work that not many horror films from the west can offer.

32 Malasaña Street


32 Malasaña Street (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Not twenty-four hours have passed since having moved to Madrid when members of the Olmedo family begin to experience strange happenings in their flat, former residence of an old woman (Almudena Salort) who died in 1972. It has been four years since her passing and yet when the new owners move in, it appears as though the deceased hasn’t yet perished. Her personal belongings—clothes in the closet, appliances on kitchen counters, record player in the living room—remain where they were. The only difference between 1972 and 1976 is the dust that settled on surfaces. It is supposed to be a new start for the humble Olmedos, who come from a farming village, but they have no idea about the nightmare they just walked into.

Albert Pintó’s “32 Malasaña Street” is a proud old-school supernatural horror. Although there are jump scares executed in a modern fashion, quick cuts and all, these rarely function as punchlines. Instead, actual scares root themselves in highly vulnerable situations—like lying in bed and suspecting that something from a few feet away is moving about in the darkness or looking at grandpa (José Luis de Madariaga) and suspecting it’s not really him or that a simple thing like taking your eyes off a five-year-old in order to take care of something urgent could lead to a life or death situation—these are milked until breaking point. This is not an ordinary haunting in which the solution lies in simply moving out.

The picture brings to mind James Wan’s “Insidious” and “The Conjuring” in that Pintó attempts to tell a story in a slow and methodical manner coupled with genuine humanity in its center. Notice that after the required ten-minute move-in scene, it is wall-to-wall scares, one event leading to another until a big revelation in the end (a curiosity but not explored enough). At the same time, the familiar template is a double-edged sword: Why see this this film when its aforementioned contemporaries are not only more potent story-wise but also the craft behind such scares are far more creative and realized? Here is a movie that neglects to offer an excellent reason why it is special on its own.

I enjoyed the performances, particularly by Begoña Vargas as the protective eldest sister named Amparo and Iván Renedo as the vulnerable spectacled youngster Rafi. We spend so much time with these two, particularly Amparo who yearns to get job that would take her away from her family, that we believe the strength of their bond despite the age difference. I wished, however, that the middle sibling, Pepe (Sergio Castellanos), is given more to do than to send and receive notes via clotheslines. There appears to be a girl living in the apartment across the street, but we see only glimpses of her—which is almost never a good sign.

There are a few standout sequences that showcase Pintó’s skill as a storyteller: Rafi sitting in front of the television as the puppet on screen begins to talk to him, the remaining Olmedos breaking into a vacant flat to search for a missing family member, and the family realizing that their dream home is in fact diseased. In each of these scenes, when the camera moves and it is utterly silent, we cannot help but to hold our breaths. We already know what’s coming… and yet we allow ourselves to be manipulated into being scared.

Island Zero


Island Zero (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

I wish more modest horror movies were like “Island Zero.” It is aware of its budgetary limitations, but it works hard to circumvent common problems that plague the genre in order to create an experience that inspires the viewer to want to stick with the curious story it has to tell. Mood and atmosphere over the usual arm-chomping and brain-bashing. The film is written by Tess Gerritsen and directed by Josh Gerritsen—names I wish to remember because I believe they have a lot more to give. This is a pretty good trial run, not for everyone but willing to engage and entertain; and I can’t wait to see what else they have to offer.

In the past few weeks, fishermen have ventured into the water and caught nothing, not even a guppy. It were as if all the fish, crabs, and lobsters have migrated from the area. But that is only one of the problems in this island, located 40 miles from Maine. Those who take their boat in the water end up disappearing, too. It has gotten so bad lately that those who wish to get out of the island have no one to transport them. It is winter, almost Christmas, and food is quickly running out. Diesel is in demand in order to keep generators running. Desperation is in the air.

I enjoyed how the story unfolds like a Stephen King novel. Here we are in an isolated community where everyone is friendly and familiar. We visit the usual hangout areas: a diner, a hotel, the docks. It is so intimate, wonderfully capturing a sense of isolation, that I couldn’t help but smile at the sight of antsy residents walking to the dock, luggages in tow, instead of taking a cab or car. The island is so small, it feels like every point of interest is within walking distance. The filmmakers know that for us to believe this community, there must be memorable, perhaps quirky, details. It is not enough for the characters to share certain accents or to sport a certain look. We must get a real sense of how they live—and later survive.

We come to know Sam (Adam Wade McLaughlin), a marine biologist who has long suspected this island will experience a sudden drop in marine population. He and his deceased wife, also a marine biologist, believe that there is an undiscovered apex predator out there in the ocean. There is the island doctor, Maggie (Laila Robins), who looks forward to leaving the island over the holidays and… spend some time alone with a good book. Although a good physician, there is a coldness to her that I found to be fascinating during the latter half of the story. And there is Jessie (Joanna Clarke), a server who has never left the island, currently crushing on a novelist, Titus (Matthew Wilkas), who has an appointment in New York City regarding the publishing of his latest book, the island of interest being the main source of inspiration. When asked what kind of story he’s writing, “It’s a love story,” he tells her. Uh huh. She knows what he means.

The movie provides extended exposition—which will undoubtedly frustrate many. I was, too, for a time, because there is a creature (or creatures) out there in the water but instead we are asked to sit through a whole lot of talking among the residents, oftentimes saying the same thing like how much they wish to get out of the island before resources run dry. However, it proves to be a smart move because the exchanges are meant to let our guards down. While this is happening, clues are being dropped left and right about what is actually going on. This isn’t to suggest there’s a big twist waiting. But certain revelations in the final half make sense in retrospect.

I liked the look of the creature. (Its body is shown about two-thirds of the way through—so patience is required.) Although not terribly original (it reminded me of a Pixar character), the film made me want to examine it whole, slice its limbs (does it have limbs?), and put its organs (if any) under a microscope. We are given information on how the organism hunts, what time of day, what it is attracted to, what repels it. We even get to see the color of its blood and hear suggestion on why it is like that. In many creature-feature films, especially those with sizable budgets, these are considered insignificant information. What matters is the violence and the gore. Not here. Although not particularly exciting, I found it to be refreshing.

The picture’s most critical shortcoming is the final ten minutes. I felt as though the filmmakers threw away what they worked so hard for by rushing through the fates of some of our protagonists. As a result, what should have been dramatic exits end up as mere footnotes. For a story that exercises a whole lot of patience, the resolution lacks precisely this element. If only it were able to hold its breath for a little while longer.

Hostel


Hostel (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★

I think the goal of Eli Roth’s “Hostel” is to make the viewers so uncomfortable that somewhere during its descent to hell they find their heads pulling away from the screen without thinking about it. As ugly, gory, and violent as the film is, an argument can be made that it is true horror in a sense that it elicits a response so visceral and so powerful that by the end it leaves one enraged, drained, or wallowing in disquiet. I found it to be entertaining from beginning to end; the story is propelled with great energy combined with a “Look what I can do!” gall.

Those who consider only the surface of the picture will be quick to label the work as “torture porn.” I’m not so sure it qualifies. Consider the extended scene in which we find one of our three backpackers—Paxton (Jay Hernandez), Josh (Derek Richardson), and Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson)—handcuffed to a chair. From the moment the physical torture begins, the camera fixates on his face. We are there with him the first time a drill punctures his skin, as he shrieks in pain, begs for help and to be released. If the purpose were to excite the viewer, the camera would have focused on the tormentor’s facial and body expressions throughout the ordeal. But no—physical suffering and desperate screaming are front and center. By framing the face just so, there is no escape; we are forced to sympathize with the doomed character.

The picture begins like a comedy—a stereotypical comedy surrounding two Americans (Hernandez, Richardson) and one Icelander (Gudjonsson) being boisterous, rude, always on the lookout for weed and women who wish to sleep with them. I was amused by their shenanigans because the performers do a good job in looking and sounding the part. They share chemistry, and what elevates the comedy is the precise phrasings, looks they give to one another, and timing in terms of when to go for hyperbole versus when to downplay. It is not until forty-five minutes into the picture when we finally encounter something especially gruesome.

There is a creative idea here. Rich folks from all over the world pay to torture and kill unsuspecting individuals. To be able to do whatever they wish to an American, it costs $25,000. Considering the film was released post 9/11, there is merit to claims that a) the movie is made for Americans and b) it wishes to make a statement about what Americans consider to be their place in the world following that tragic day. But I go further. I think the writer-director wants to show his American audience that we as a society are not blameless for 9/11.

Like the characters in this film, we go into other people’s countries and act like we own the place, sometimes forcing them to adopt our values and morality—a modern day invasion. To make that point is brave and Roth opens himself—as a filmmaker, as an American, or just any other person—for censure. And yet to do so is a very American thing to do. To criticize ourselves for what we are doing wrong is, in my eyes, patriotic. Clearly, there is substance in “Hostel” should one bother to wade through the warm blood, shredded organs, and fatty tissues.