The Cured


The Cured (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Written and directed by David Freyne, “The Cured” is a zombie movie with a brain. Those who come in expecting to see a series of mindless chases between the undead and the living are certain to be disappointed because the film is more interested in exploring what happens after the so-called Infected are now considered to be Cured. Their reintegration to society touches upon so many metaphors that are highly relevant to our own social issues such as recently released convicts, those who have gone through rehab due to drug addiction, even immigration.

The screenplay cares about presenting details and then mining them for human drama. Although the majority of the population has been cured, we learn about the exact percentage of those who remain resistant to the drug. It is recognized that the former Infected are able to retain their memories from when they were not in control of their own bodies. The trauma of remembering is underlined and is told through one man’s increasingly heavy guilt: Senan (Sam Keeley) having been welcomed with open arms by his sister-in-law named Abbie (Ellen Page), the latter unaware that the former had killed her husband which left her young son without a father.

The atmosphere created by the writer-director is precise and carefully controlled. Gloom dominates every scene. Notice the choice of season. Cold colors overwhelm the warm ones even when indoors. People speak in a relaxed tone and manner as if not to disturb those who have perished. Laughter is evanescent. When someone smiles, it is welcome but awkward. The survivors—both the Cured and the ones who were never bitten—deserve to move on. We want them to but they cannot. Clearly, the shadows of death and mayhem remain in Ireland.

There is a lot of anger in the streets. People who watched their loved ones die do not wish to live alongside the Cured. To them, they are murderers. Meanwhile, some of the Cured are growing frustrated being treated worse than animals. A man named Conor, a former barrister before he turned and now assigned by the military to be a cleaner, is more than happy to take on the role of leader. He has the ability to take anger, turn them into hateful actions, and label these as something else. Conor is played with silent menace by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor. He can simply stand in one corner without saying a word and yet we feel he is up to no good. It begs the question: Is the true monster the one who isn’t control of his actions or the one who is?

Less interesting, although still entertaining, is the final twenty minutes. It involves the typical zombie screeching, biting, and running about. Who will die? Who will live? I suppose it is a necessary catharsis, but I wished that Freyne had found a fresher way to close his consistently curious story. One can take solace, however, for leaving certain details open to interpretation. It ends just as it begins: a kiss on the cheek for the more thoughtful viewers.

Evil Dead II


Evil Dead II (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn” begins like any other cabin-in-the-woods horror picture: an unsuspecting couple goes on their romantic weekend getaway and suddenly their plans are completely derailed. Something unusual, shocking, almost off-putting: not eight minutes into the picture, the woman is dead—beheaded!—and buried in the ground. The man named Ash (brilliantly played by Bruce Campbell) is left to fend for himself against the demonic forces residing in the woods. Terror and… hilarity ensues. The work, written by Sam Raimi (who directs) and Scott Spiegel, is a satire of horror movies.

It is not so much a love letter to horror films—the first “Evil Dead,” a straight-faced scary movie involving a group of friends who meet in their doom in the very same cabin of this sequel—is closer to that. This is a love letter to horror images, from the undead rising from the grave, malicious-looking trees capable of uprooting themselves, a severed hand moving on its own, to buckets of blood being sprayed from the walls. It is so over-the-top that one cannot help but smile at its earnestness, its willing to entertain no matter the cost. And it does not run out of energy.

There are numerous crafty sequences powerful enough to embed themselves in our memories. I will give two examples. The first involves Ash finding himself surrounded by laughter… not of other people but of inanimate objects (deer mounted on the wall, bookcases, lamp) that shouldn’t be capable of moving let alone laugh. The demons are mocking him for being alone, for being weak, for being terrified. The evil knows it is going to win and so it plays with Ash for as long as possible. Ash can’t find himself to do anything at that point but laugh along. That is, until his laughter turns into sobs of desperation. He is the target and the evil force aims to drive him mad; he is entertainment to them—and he, along with his tormentors, in turn is entertainment to us. Clearly, the satire has bite.

Another example: the unbroken shot involving a chase between Ash and the unknown force that follows him from the woods to the cabin. We take the point of view of villain. But notice the content of the chase: it is a slapstick comedy. Ash wriggles about, stumbles, inserts himself in various cracks and corners like a little mouse. He opens and breaks down doors… and the evil is capable of doing the same. Things go wrong for our protagonist and yet somehow the force never gets to him, perhaps on purpose. It is loyal to the theme of Ash being its plaything. The evil is not evil because the ominous Book of the Dead says so. It is evil because of its actions: It enjoys tormenting its victim for the sake of entertainment. Raimi is in complete control of not only the images but the messages he wishes for us to consider. It is clever nearly every step of the way. (“Nearly” because I am not a fan of the final scene that sets up the next movie.)

“Evil Dead II” is not just any other remake or sequel or reimagining. I think this terrific follow-up can be considered as the “alternate spirit” of the original. Both share the same setting, but emphasis is on completely different ideas. Similar special and visual effects are employed, but they must be utilized in different ways in order to accomplish a specific goal. Together, these two make an excellent double feature for those who wish to analyze and understand specific types of storytelling told through similar vein. There is plenty to appreciate here.

Impetigore


Impetigore (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

After seeing Joko Anwar’s Indonesian horror film “Impetigore,” I was inspired to walk around outside and soak in the warm sunlight. It is the kind of work that drenches you so fully with its heavy fog of portentous images, the experience is like peering into a different world—a world without warmth, without hope, without comfort.

The movie is scary, mysterious, and suspenseful. But it can also be funny at a drop of a hat. The writer-director seems to be aware of the genre’s conventions and so he injects just enough kinks to keep us on our toes. This is not a work that is reliant upon jump scares and quick cuts—which plague mediocre horror pictures in the west. On the contrary, it seems to have aversion toward cheap scares and such overused techniques. Its patience invites us to look into the void.

The premise is familiar: a woman named Maya (Tara Basro) returns to the village where she was born so she can, in a way, come to terms with her past. Desperate financially, she wishes to check on a house that her parents might have left for her and sell it. But this template is surface-level. Even before we lay eyes on the isolated village of Harjosari, Maya’s past has come to haunt her. But the haunting is not done by old-fashioned ghosts—residents of the village venture into the city to find and kill her. We learn about a curse that’s been around for twenty years. Somehow Maya is in the middle of it even though she has no childhood memory of Harjosari.

We spend ample time learning about the village’s culture. Maya and her best friend named Dini (Marissa Anita) tiptoe around the hush-hush village as they notice there appears to be a procession for the dead on a daily basis. We observe how residents live, the type of work that’s available, the clothing on their backs. Locals do not smile. Their eyes either look dead or angry.

This is a place without electricity so when darkness comes every corner feels like a threat. We attend their rituals—a burial, pregnant women giving birth, puppet shows. We visit the cemetery and note its verdant beauty… amidst small headstones of children without names. Nearly every scene we are given something creepy to digest.

I am the first to complain when a film is reliant upon flashbacks. There is one extended flashback during the third act, but I didn’t mind it because everything else that leads up to that point is strong. Notice that if flashbacks were taken out completely, we would still have other information already at our disposal in order to make sense of the story. In other words, looking into the past does not take away from or sabotage the current timeline. Filmmakers in the west—especially Americans—can learn a thing or two on how to utilize flashbacks in a way that enriches the work rather than cheating or boring the audience.

I wished the final scene involving what happens to the village “one year later” had been removed altogether because it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. That short and pointless sequence is something I expected from writer-directors who do not understand how to be efficient with storytelling. Nevertheless, this misstep does not take away the fact that “Impetigore” excels in inducing uneasiness and disquiet. I look forward to discovering what else Anwar can offer.

Vivarium


Vivarium (2019)
★ / ★★★★

The suburbs is where people go to settle down and die. That’s the metaphor behind “Vivarium,” a twenty-minute short film stretched to a hundred painful minutes which results in annoyance and pointlessness. By the end of it, I wanted to scream into the ears of director Lorcan Finnegan—exactly how one of his characters belts out a shrill scream when it experiences frustration. Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg—who share minimal chemistry—portray a young couple looking to buy a home but find themselves trapped in the labyrinthine housing development called Yonder after the real estate agent, Martin (Jonathan Aris), disappears during the tour. This picture is evidence that a good idea can go nowhere fast when the screenplay fails to dig deep; there is a skeletal story and nothing else. Instead, heavy-handed (and obvious) symbolisms are thrown onto our laps—laziness masquerading as “creativity.” I didn’t buy it and neither should you. Certainly there are creepy moments, like when Gemma and Tom discover an infant in a box that comes with instructions and how houses, streets, and clouds look identical, but these are not enough to keep the material afloat. The question comes down to this: What is it about suburbia that sucks the life out of its inhabitants? The routine? Boredom? Homogeneity? A sheltered existence? There is setup but no punchline. What is the point of telling this particular story and why is it worth telling? Based on the screenplay by Garret Shanley.

Evil Dead


Evil Dead (2013)
★ / ★★★★

“I’ve had enough of this shit.”

So have I, Mia. So have I. Less than halfway through, it is glaringly apparent that Fede Alvarez’ reimagining of Sam Raimi’s 1981 horror classic “The Evil Dead” adopts an obnoxious (and obvious) approach to tell its story: turn up the volume to 11, make it five times as gory as the original, and drain every bit of charm out of the characters so when they get injured, maimed, or die, we do not even blink at the fact. It is a movie more concerned with delivering surface, evanescent sensations rather than attempting to provide an experience that lingers in the gut and mind. One trick pony by nature, it’s completely forgettable.

Take a look at the infamous forest rape scene as an example. In this film, the visual effects are quite impressive. When the trees’ branches wrap around Mia’s neck (Jane Levy), it really looks like there is a grip around her throat that is preventing her from breathing. The black, slug-like demon crawls out from the tree, onto her legs, and inside her. By contrast, in Raimi’s film, the branches do not look as though they possess intention to hurt, kill, or rape. Not only are they thin, they look like they’re already dead or dying.

And yet despite the clear gap in budget and quality of effects, notice that Raimi’s is the better scene. There is patience from behind the camera. There is a rhythm to the editing—inciting us to call for help even though we know it is only a movie. When the camera moves, it is always with purpose. It is quieter, less busy. It feels personal. Sad, even. The rape feels drawn-out which amplifies the horror of the scene. You wish to look away. You feel shaken. In Alvarez’ film, the rape is just something that happens. Onto the next violent sequence.

If you’re on the market for young people cutting off their faces with glass, being shot with a nail gun, and chopping off their arms with an electric knife, then perhaps this version is for you. Or maybe not. Consider: Why bother reimagining a story when the screenwriters (Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues) fail to inject new blood in a franchise that, while gory, is fun, funny, inviting, filled with knowing winks to the genre and, above all, creative? It just doesn’t stand out from other grim-faced demonic possession movies. What’s the point?

The setup is not without potential. I liked that these characters do not visit the cabin in the woods to have fun during their weekend getaway. Olivia (Jessica Lucas), Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), David (Shiloh Fernandez), and Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) are there to help Mia (Jane Levy) overcome her heroine addiction. There are easy parallels between drug addiction and being possessed by a foreign entity. It is curious and disappointing that the screenplay fails to capitalize on the metaphor and deliver a work with surprising thought or insight. It is all about making the violence look grand, shocking, spectacular. I didn’t care one bit.

I wanted to care about Mia and David. These are siblings who have lost touch just before their mother died. The expository dialogue hints at pain, sadness, and anger they have for (but hide from) one another. But these are never explored—even when one of them has been possessed by evil. I think the problem is that the writers have a limited definition of horror. It is not always about disturbing and gross-out images. In fact, I argue it should rarely be about that. The horror genre is a conduit, a mask, a mirror for something we cannot face head-on. And because they don’t understand what horror really is, we are given a cheap, factory-made horror film.

King Jack


King Jack (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Felix Thompson’s beautiful and engaging debut feature “King Jack” is a story about a teenager who learns the hard way how to care for someone else other than himself. It is told with patience, complexity, and searing honesty. The protagonist is a delinquent and immediately we ask ourselves why we should care for him and why he is worth following. And just as quickly we are provided answers—superficial, at least initially, but surprising and deep later on. Its fingers are right on the pulse of what most fifteen-year-olds care about during that time their lives: to make friends, to be respected, to be seen as individuals. So few coming-of-age films manage to avoid a false note. This is one of them.

Charlie Plummer plays Jack, a young man who struggles to make genuine connections with his peers. He has a crush on a girl named Robyn (Scarlet Lizbeth) but fails to engage her in conversation. And so he sends her a shirtless picture of himself via text. When she asks for a naked photo, he doesn’t think twice. Clearly, this is a boy willing to grasp at anything that remotely resembles friendship. Is he even aware he’s lost? His mother, Karen (Erin Davie), seems to pick up on it, but her priority is to make ends meet. Jack is confronted only when there are cuts and bruises on his body. But even then she fails to probe at what’s really going on. Perhaps she doesn’t want more headache. Without question, Karen cares for her son. But in some ways it is more important that she be able to put food on the table. I admired this take on a type of character too often pushed to the side in coming-of-age pictures.

We get a good look at where Jack and his family lives. They are poor but not destitute. There is no laughter in the home other than what can be heard on television. When Jack gets home from summer school, notice he doesn’t do homework. He drinks beer while playing video games. There are photographs hung on walls and picture frames sitting on shelves. The quality of the photos are poor, almost dim, blurry. You’d have to squint to appreciate the details. Notice that the pictures are at least five years old. It’s like time stopped when the father left or died. (We never learn what happens to him but his absence is ever-present.) Bright colors are nearly impossible to spot. They live in a blue-collar neighborhood where pretty much everyone knows each other. But the majority are not willing to speak up when there’s trouble. No one wants to be confronted, especially by the police. There is honor in silence.

When Jack is told that his twelve-year-old cousin, Ben (Cory Nichols), is going to stay with them for a couple of days because his mother “is not herself,” Jack couldn’t believe it. He doesn’t want the responsibility of looking out for someone else. Deep down Jack knows he can’t even look after himself. This relationship is the heart of the picture because the sudden change forces us to look at a selfish character under a different light: we get glimpses of Jack the good brother instead of Jack the rabble-rouser. But just because a new factor is added into the household does not necessarily mean big changes are in store. Trouble tends to follow Jack. A sadistic bully (Danny Flaherty) aims to give Jack a hard time at every turn.

Notice how the humor comes across naturally. No one has to fall down a flight of stairs or is required to partake in gross-out humor. Jack and Ben are simply allowed to be the themselves—with one another, with other girls; humor is born out of their chemistry. Mainstream comedies aimed for teenagers can learn a thing or ten from independent pictures. Sometimes a situation is funnier when it is allowed be instead of forcing it. Observe the rhythm and flow of the baseball scene. Of the truth-or-dare scene. Of the two cousins trying to rekindle that special connection.

“King Jack” possesses a dark undercurrent. It makes a strong statement regarding the cycle of violence in a way that is bleak but realistic—especially in a neighborhood where Jack resides. But Thompson ensures to provide a glimmer of hope. The ending works as a litmus test of what we think about how an environment can shape or scar a person. A part of me wants to believe Jack will be all right given he summons the inner strength to graduate high school, to get out of the small town, to find and pursue what he loves, and to experience a bigger world. But a part of me couldn’t help but consider he might not be strong enough. I hope that’s not the case.

Jumanji: The Next Level


Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)
★ / ★★★★

There is nothing next level in this sequel to the surprisingly enjoyable “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” the first direct follow-up of the 1995 classic, unless you count mediocrity as a positive trait. It is try-hard in just about every aspect: its humor, characterizations of already hyperbolic characters, vague references to video games, and utilization of bad CGI in order to create a semblance of thrill and excitement. I was bored by its rotten offerings; halfway through I felt embarrassed for everyone on screen and wondered which projects they refused in order to appear in this misfire of an action-comedy.

It begins with potential because there is some form of human drama. Spencer (Alex Wolff), now a college student in New York City, the nerdy kid who we assumed would thrive in a college setting back when we met him as a high school senior in the preceding picture, appears to be experiencing college blues. He returns home for the holidays and, in order to escape, chooses to go back into the game and recapture that feeling of being strong, unstoppable, special.

But instead of really honing in on this character’s psychology or state of mind, the screenplay by Jake Kasdan (who directs), Jeff Pinkner, and Scott Rosenberg, merely introduces elements why he might be feeling depressed: a recent break-up, a thankless part-time job, feeling deeply insecure from having seen Instagram posts of all the adventures his friends are having, and the like. Once Spencer gets sucked into the game, all humanity goes out the window and never seen again. Naturally, when he is found everything is all right again. The movie is over, right? Unfortunately, no.

Instead, we are introduced to a number of eccentric characters both old and new. Particularly enjoyable are Eddy, Spencer’s grandfather who is recovering from hip surgery played by the inimitable Danny DeVito, and Milo, Eddie’s former restaurant co-owner played by the scene-stealer Danny Glover. Notice that no matter how familiar or connected we are to Spencer and his friends (Morgan Turner, Madison Iseman, Ser’Darius Blain), not one of them is interesting by comparison when in a scene with the highly experienced DeVito and Glover. When the two character actors speak or simply be, our attention goes straight to them. At one point, I wondered why these young folks are required to appear in this next chapter since they are given nothing new to say or do. For easy continuity, I guess. Convenience.

And that’s the problem. This film has grown comfortable taking the easy route one too many times—whether it be the safe jokes (sometimes the exact same jokes we’ve already encountered in the previous movie which makes the expository scenes drag like no tomorrow), how characters tend to yell over one another which is often mistaken for humor, the way in which the action is presented in a chaotic and unappealing way, to the lame, surface-level nudges to video games, especially role-playing games. While understandable that the screenwriters try to strive for accessibility, it is a family picture after all, must the material be so consistently devoid of originality, creativity, and ability to take risks? This movie tastes like it was made in a factory.

You can tell that “Jumanji: The Next Level” is made too soon and too quickly. The central villain named Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann) is bland and the mountaintop castle he resides in is without personality. In the end, of course, our heroes must break into the castle and obtain an artifact. Anybody who has played a video game can tell you that final bosses must be challenging. In this film, it is like a walk in the park. There is no sense of danger or mortality. No one even gets wounded. When our characters’ remaining lives dwindle down to one, there is no tension at all. You know what would have been next level? To discover what happens when a character’s final life gets used up. Because the film is so safe, we never get an answer.

The Bone Box


The Bone Box (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Luke Genton’s “The Bone Box” shows nothing we haven’t already seen before. Yet it might be worth seeing for what it is able to accomplish under a limited budget. The story unfolds in a two-story house right next to a cemetery, owned by the widow Aunt Florence (Maria Olsen), and scares come in the form of ghosts making themselves known to the guilt-ridden Tom (Gareth Koorzen), a gambling addict neck-deep in debt who decided to dig graves and steal from the dead for funds. A woman named Elodie (Michelle Krusiec), who works at the cemetery, is his co-conspirator.

Every other scene involves a paranormal encounter. It ranges from unsettling (a painting of Aunt Florence’s house with a black figure slowly approaching the front door) and overtly creepy (a bicycle bell ringing downstairs) to downright ridiculous (a bride who kills herself in a bathtub). Given the limited number of rooms, it’s quite astonishing how the writer-director is able to move from one set piece to another with a rhythm and flow. It is breathless at times but never flashy.

But not all ghosts are meant for scares. Tom is still grieving over his wife’s death due to cancer. This is the aspect of the screenplay that the story could have done without. I found the flashbacks and imaginings to be cloying and sentimental. It exists solely as Tom’s trigger to get into gambling. Remove this portion of the story and Tom remains the same character: greedy, desperate, possibly on the verge of losing his mind.

There are a few inspired images. Most of us have encountered scenes from other horror movies involving a mannequin moving on its own. But the mannequin encounter here pushes it a bit further in that the editing is so swift and skillful that it becomes difficult to tell whether the veiled figure is simply a dummy or a performer. We know it is going to move. That’s not the punchline. It is a manner of when. Another involves a shadow wearing a hat engulfing the silhouette of our protagonist. When I am thunderstruck with terrific images like these, it made me wonder what else Genton could have accomplished given a larger budget.

The dialogue could have used a bit of work. Expository lines should have been excised altogether; leaving them makes it difficult to listen to. We get the impression we are being told rather than being inspired to listen and feel deeply. I do, however, appreciate exchanges like Tom and Aunt Florence discussing their connection in terms of loved ones they’ve lost and how such deaths have changed the course of how they continued to live their lives. Genton is correct to introduce moments of pause from time to time so that we form a connection with the characters and to build tension. After all, we know there are spirits in the house.

Clearly, “The Bone Box” is not without potential. I admired it for its willingness to tell a focused and engaging ghost story even though the final act is as generic as it comes (ghosts appearing all at once—bad cosmetics and all—and the main character’s descent to madness which comes across so, so busy). It is for horror fans with an open mind who couldn’t care less whether a movie looks like it was made with $100,000 or a hundred times that. It’s about the execution.

Color Out of Space


Color Out of Space (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

The essence of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories are notoriously difficult to get right on film, and Richard Stanley’s “Color Out of Space” is yet another example. What should be an enigmatic, sad, and ultimately horrifying story involving a family whose matriarch, Theresa (Joely Richardson), has just undergone mastectomy is reduced to a series of “Did that just really happen?” shock moments—entertaining at first but eventually suffering from diminishing returns. While the special effects—CGI and practical—are visually impressive on occasion, especially eye-catching when the filmmakers dare us to look at the disgusting boils and rotting flesh, I found myself not caring at all about the family. Like their pet alpacas, they are treated merely as sheep to be slaughtered.

The picture shows initial promise, clearly having an eye for beauty. Observe the opening scene closely. We watch the teenage daughter, Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), an aspiring witch, partaking in a ritual that might help to strengthen her mother’s health. During her performance, we learn about her hopes for the family, how she feels about living in a posh but isolated estate, her yearning for independence. She is surrounded by verdant trees, the circle of rocks sitting right next to a pond full of life, how the bright sand allows everything on top of them to pop out. It creates the impression that the story is taking place somewhere far away, foreign, certainly not set during modern times. This fantasy, however, is broken when a curious stranger appears—Ward (Elliot Knight), the hydrologist, a potential romantic interest.

But the stranger is not the only outsider. In the middle of the night, a meteorite crashes on the front yard and creates an explosion. Nathan (Nicolas Cage) and Theresa run out to investigate, imploring their children to get away from the crash site and stay inside the house. Bizarre events begin to happen… starting with the youngest, Jack (Julian Hilliard), who goes into some sort of shock or trance right after the crash. Soon, Benny (Brendan Meyer), the middle child, begins to encounter problems with time.

Although it is interesting that the family members’ strange experiences are directly tethered to their interests—for example, Benny enjoys smoking marijuana which can alter one’s perception of time, Jack enjoys pretend play so he starts hearing someone, or some thing, attempting to communicate with him from inside the well—it is frustrating that the story fails to take off.

The movie is reduced to showing grotesque incidents. The more this formula is followed, the more the work consistently fails to provide reasons why this particular story is worth telling. We are provided not one original idea. In the middle of it, I wondered what the picture was about. Is it about Lavinia becoming a woman, the meteor serving as metaphor for womanhood? Is it about how one family member’s illness (in this case, cancer) can become the whole family’s illness (emotional, financial, social stresses)? It is about how helpless or unprepared we are as a species when faced with new or ancient disease? These are just three examples. So as you see, this story could have been so much more. Yet it isn’t.

Even Cage’s histrionic acting gets old eventually. Because nearly every element is so hyperbolic—the colors, the sounds, the effects, the characters’ desperate circumstances—the hammy acting becomes groan-inducing. I was reminded of Panos Cosmatos’ avant-garde “Mandy”—in which Cage’s hyperbolic facial expressions, behaviors, and overall being feel exactly right. Here, the Cage brand of manic functions more as distraction from the malnourished screenplay.

Absentia


Absentia (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Writer-director Mike Flanagan’s debut feature film proves that showing the monster completely is not necessary to construct an effective horror film. Instead, he drowns the viewer in tense and portentous atmosphere, creepy folklores, and genuine humanity. Only ten minutes into the picture—opening credits included—already we are presented with an emotional hook: Tricia (Courtney Bell) confesses to her younger sister, Callie (Katie Parker), what she forces herself to think or imagine in regards to what might have happened to her husband since his disappearance seven years ago. Here is a portrait of a woman so lonely, so sad, and so desperate to have some semblance of closure in her marriage that she is unable to move forward with her life. Her husband is not the only thing that disappeared seven years ago. So did her own light.

We meet Tricia putting up new missing person posters and right away we detect a melancholy about her. She moves rather slowly not because she’s pregnant but because she is pulled between past and future. The present is unbearable; she lacks purpose. It is quite possible she’s depressed. Bell portrays Tricia as a motherly and sisterly figure with seeming ease. We wish to get to know her character even though she is clearly not at her best. Flanagan makes the correct decision to allow Tricia and Callie to talk deeply—about Daniel’s disappearance, Tricia delaying to find a new place to live and start a new chapter, Callie’s history with drug addiction. What’s brilliant is the fact that these personal details are not simply utilized to garner our sympathy. These are tied into the mystery at hand: What is going on in this neighborhood, especially its track record of people suddenly being spirited away?

There are numerous creepy and downright chilling images, from bug-like shadow creatures skittering about, a shower curtain moving just a little bit when nothing is supposed to be behind it, ghostly Daniel appearing in the background when Tricia closes her eyes—and sometimes right in front of her when she opens them. Couple these with Flanagan’s expert use of silence. We learn to brace ourselves when all we can hear are footsteps and the sounds of our characters breathing. Notice, too, that when the unsettling score is employed, it is also overpowering. It is interesting that at times the score booms and we are forced to listen closely at the subtler sounds of a scene. Clearly, Flanagan wishes for us to engage with the material, to use all of our senses and turn on our brains—the opposite of many modern horror movies.

I enjoyed there is no explanation offered about the origins of the monsters. To do so would have eroded their mystique, possibly made them less scary. I would even go as far to say that going down that route would have made the story more pedestrian. Instead, we are given time to absorb and process the lies the characters tell themselves in order to try to make sense of seemingly inexplicable paranormal phenomenon. Because are provided rich character details, the various puzzle pieces can be put together so that rationalizations are pragmatic, “conclusive.” This is true to life, I think. We are biologically wired this way so that we can move on from tragic and/or traumatic events. The goal of this film is to put that idea into context.

“Absentia” may be low on budget but it is high on ambition, imagination, and entertainment value. Obviously a fan of the horror genre, Flanagan is aware of the usual rhythm and beat—he uses them as they are sometimes and there are instances when he turns them upside down. But most of his effort is put into creating humanistic and deeply flawed characters so that we care about them as if we know them personally. I grew so attached to Tricia and Callie, I found myself wanting a sequel… even though I know deep down that the story is complete as is.

Barbara


Barbara (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

For the majority of the beautifully told story of “Barbara,” written by Christian Petzold and Harun Farocki, directed with precision by the former, we become convinced that the titular character would do anything necessary to get out of the oppressive East Germany. She is so unhappy about having been banished in a rural town to work at a clinic as a doctor for simply filing a formal request to leave the east that from the moment we lay eyes on her, it is clear that this woman is angry at the government and the system that deny her freedom—and yet she must compose herself because anybody could be watching. A woman at a bus stop, an old man at a cafe, a stranger in his car—anyone is a potential informant. One wrong move could get her arrested. The core is a drama while the surrounding layers is suspense.

It requires the viewer to pay close attention. Notice the lack of score or soundtrack, for instance. Instead, the music is the wind, how it tends to blow hard and rattles the leaves and branches as Barbara acquires an item from a hiding spot. She is in contact with her beau (Mark Waschke), a man of money and influence, who lives in West Germany. The music, too, is the sound the bicycle makes, Barbara’s main mode of transport; the crashing of the waves, the ruckus a patient makes as she is carried to her bed; the alarming ringing of a telephone; a terrifying knock on the apartment’s front door. Because there is no music to guide us when it comes to how to feel or what to expect, small turn of events provide maximum impact.

Barbara is portrayed by Nina Hoss with intelligence, grace, and intrigue. She is one of those performers who can simply stand in one spot while smoking a cigarette and her relaxed stance conveys plenty. The character is challenging to navigate on paper because she does not say much—which is a requirement because Barbara must be careful from saying or even implying the wrong thought or intention. She suspects everyone around her to be a potential informant—and she is correct in doing so. Particularly painful then, in a longing sort of way, are her interactions with a kind colleague, André (Ronald Zehrfeld), who appears to be genuinely interested in her as both a person and a potential lover. He recognizes her loneliness, but we have a reason to question his actions because the first scene involves André and a Stasi agent watching her through a window.

Barbara’s oppression is not localized to the Stasi dropping by at her apartment unannounced to search through her belongings, strip-searching, and cavity-searching her. Seemingly beautiful scenery can be considered oppressive should one chooses to observe closely. For example, while in broad daylight, notice how the wind blows so harshly as Barbara rides her bicycle to and from her “secret areas.” The gust is so strong that it ends up creating so much noise; not only must she remain control of her secondhand bicycle, it is a struggle for her to detect if anyone is nearby. Every second of action and inaction counts. Another example is when it is night and she is outdoors. Shadows cover her face and body most of the time, almost enveloping her, and it is especially a challenge to make out the faces of those within the vicinity. When Barbara is out and about, there is constant danger. Violence is not always at the forefront.

“Barbara” is not about overt thrills. We are presented detailed information in a clear and exacting ways. We choose how to process the information and based on what we have seen from other stories—from novels, television shows, or other films—combined with the specific characters we are tasked to understand, we extrapolate what must happen and what is likely to happen. One of the ways suspense is amplified is how our common sense might clash against what we hope to happen. I admire this work greatly for not settling on easy catharsis, such as chase scenes or shootouts. Here is a story involving a prison without bars.

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.