What Keeps You Alive (2018)
★ / ★★★★
It is apparent that writer-director Colin Minihan knows how to control the camera. Long, smooth, and confident single takes are employed either to capture the beauty of a particular space (a tour of the charming cabin) or to ramp up tension of the hunt between predator and prey (the boat chase is a standout). It is technically proficient. But this thriller surrounding Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) and Jules (Brittany Allen) who decide to spend their first-year anniversary as a married couple at a lakeside cabin is lacking in suspense, thrill, and common sense. One can presage a false alarm way before the setup or a “Gotcha!” dream sequence just as it is executed. Because we are consistently ahead of it, it fails to engage on the gut level despite sudden left turns of the plot. It is most frustrating because Anderson and Allen, even though the script sounds too polished at times, deliver solid performances. Clearly, the performers are better than what they must work with.
The Prodigy (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★
There are a dime a dozen horror pictures that leave such a terrible first impression, they never recover. Right from the opening shot involving a creepy-looking door and jump scare, I knew immediately where it was heading: a kidnapped woman (Brittany Allen) goes sprinting through the woods and onto the highway. A driver, enjoying a peaceful night drive on the road, makes a sudden movement to swerve in order to avoid hitting the anguished woman. There is pause and silence. The camera moves slowly toward the passenger window. It is so predictable, we know the exact point on the frame from which the escaped victim would appear suddenly. Cue the booming score. I rolled my eyes; I braced myself for a likely torturous ninety minutes. Then it proved me wrong.
Those looking for creepy children horror movies will get exactly what they expect from “The Prodigy,” written by Jeff Buhler and directed by Nicholas McCarthy, and then some. I refuse to reveal the precise machinations of the plot, but trust when I say that the material takes a concept and simply goes for it—not half-heartedly but all the way. Some viewers may scoff at it, especially since some developments are so ludicrous, but those who are open for a suspenseful and thrilling ride are certain to notice the steady rising action, that each turn of event is becoming increasingly unsettling. Eventually, we begin to detect a hopeless feeling because the challenge involving the boy comes across as seemingly insurmountable.
The boy is named Miles and he is played with great energy by Jackson Robert Scott. The young actor impresses not because he must deliver two performances but because of the way he tends to muddle the line between good Miles and bad Miles. No, the film is not a simply an extreme case of bipolar disorder or dissociative identity disorder. It is much worse, if you can believe it. Scott’s performance, to my surprise, matches that of Taylor Schilling, who plays the mother, the latter on the verge of breakdown due to the nightmare that has taken hold of her once happy home. It is required, for the sake of believability, that the two performances function on a similar level.
The titular character is highly intelligent and an exceptional liar. Tension accumulates because there is always the possibility that Miles is already two steps ahead of his parents (the father played by Peter Mooney) who realize they do not feel safe in their own house. When Sarah and John whisper in the middle of the night, for example, we squint at the carefully framed shadows. Could Miles be lurking there? The director is wise to employ numerous wide shots in order to arouse suspicion among the environment. We already know how terrified the parents are and so focusing on close-ups would have taken away from the rising action. I enjoyed, too, that there are moments when Miles does not have an inkling that his parents might be up to something. By changing it up once in a while, it keeps us on our toes.
“The Prodigy” surprises, too, when it comes to its level of brutality. There are implied violence… and then there are those that are so in-your-face, I caught myself looking away suddenly due to a mix of horror and utter shock that certain images are actually, daringly, shown. And yet it does not come across as gratuitous, you see. The reason is because the filmmakers actually care about telling a particular story first and foremost. The inevitable violence is a byproduct.
It Stains the Sands Red (2016)
★ / ★★★★
Here is the kind of zombie picture where the heroine falls on the ground for no reason when faced with an immediate threat and we are supposed to believe somehow that this is thrilling rather than silly or downright idiotic. For much of its ninety-minute running time, which actually feels at least an hour longer, the plot fails to take off. Boredom grips the mind and when it finally does get somewhat interesting, the twist is dropped so quickly in exchange for standard zombie film clichés. The material is in desperate need of rewrite.
Directed by Colin Minihan, “It Stains the Sands Red” is set in a universe where the undead has taken over Las Vegas. Molly (Brittany Allen), an exotic dancer with drug addiction, is with her boyfriend (Merwin Mondesir) while on their way out of the city when their car gets stuck on the side of the road. Since they are in the middle of the desert, no help can be found nearby for miles. However, there is a zombie (Juan Riedinger) on the hunt for its next meal and it is closer to the couple than they realize.
Much of the picture involves Molly walking around the desert while being followed by the flesh-eater. Painfully obvious is the fact that the situation is metaphor for the heroine literally being followed by the demons of her past. Writers Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz fail to assume that the audience is intelligent enough to see past the various symbolisms. Instead, the material adopts a repetitive cycle of a small chase between the woman and the zombie, Molly getting away somehow, day turning into night, a flashback into Molly’s life, rinse and repeat. No tension is accumulated because the situation is watered down by various attempts at dark comedy—only the humor is equally predictable as the metaphor.
There is a twist involving a change in relationship between predator and prey that I thought paved the way for an interesting avenue. I wondered that perhaps the film is not supposed to function mainly as a horror film but an experimental think piece. But this proved to be giving the filmmakers too much credit too soon because just when it starts to get interesting, it moves onto a path so uninspired, so oft tread upon, that one wishes for the experience to be over immediately. Right then we know exactly where the movie is heading.
Creating a badass heroine is especially difficult to accomplish. For one, a performer with range must be hired for the job. Second, the writing must be so on point yet so subtle that we believe the evolution without question whatsoever. Third, the story usually commands a standard arc but with enough fascinating pieces added throughout that we do not mind the typical dramatic parabola so much. But the film does not possess any of these qualities. Notice how the movie ends. There is no closure. Clearly, the writers do not understand what the movie is about. If they did, they would have realized that closure would have completed the character’s journey. Perhaps they were hoping for a sequel?
The quality of “It Stains the Sands Red” is captured perfectly with a scene involving Molly attempting to fight a zombie with a rock. Enough said.