Tag: halloween

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 (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.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)
★★★ / ★★★★

The pseudo-documentary approach of “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” written for the screen by Earl E. Smith and directed by Charles B. Pierce (who also co-stars as the dimwitted Patrolman A.C. “Sparkplug” Benson), works in this particular story because the killer is never identified or caught. The plot is loosely based on the Texarkana Moonlight Murders of 1946 and it makes for an interesting watch as a crime picture and a genre exercise: it establishes a convincing setting of a post-World War II border town living in every day terror and it is not constrained by the usual trappings of the modern slasher horror since it was made before the slasher sub-genre took off.

We are greeted with a creepy but matter-of-fact narration by Vern Stierman. It does not waste any time in establishing the stakes and convincing the viewers why this tale is worth telling. By showing us around the usual hangouts in Texarkana—bars, movie theaters, churches—and the people living in it, typical establishing shots usually treated as throwaways in modern horror stories, it creates a genuine aura of foreboding. If the murders can happen in this town with these regular Americans, it can just as well happen to you and me.

We follow Deputy Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine) and Captain J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson), a local cop and a Texas Ranger, visit crime scenes and gather clues as the strong, tall, and white-masked Phantom Killer (Bud Davis) slaughters unsuspecting couples in their vehicles every twenty-one days. Prine and Johnson share a curious chemistry, perhaps because they play their characters’ personalities as opposites or that it is entirely apparent they are performers in a horror movie more than capable of delivering subtlety, although the material does not bother to delve deeply into their differing approaches when it comes to police work. They are shown as capable and smart, so we recognize why they are the best hands and minds to try to apprehend the killer. There are hints of a solid procedural here.

The killings are not shown in a cinematic way—which I felt to be the correct approach. They are messy, ugly, and sad. There is not one effective jump scare. Instead, it tasks us to wallow in the violence and consider the torment the victims are going through. Therein lies its horror. Particularly memorable is the third couple, a pair of musicians, who are brutalized in such an unblinking fashion, especially the woman (Cindy Butler), that I caught my eyes moving away from the screen in order to take a breath. Our empathy is always with the victim, never the killer. And so when the scene reaches the inevitable climax, the defeat is all the more impactful. This is when The Phantom Killer is at his most confident and… creative. We desperately wish for him to make a mistake so that Ramsey and Morales could get closer to his tracks.

Although peppered with comic moments (all scenes involving Sparkplug being slow but quite earnest to execute his assignments the best he can), “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” is not created to make the audience feel good—at least not in a traditional sense. It is meant to horrify and remind that taking another person’s life is quite the chore, maybe even requiring discipline. For instance, how is it possible that The Phantom Killer was so successful in not leaving meaningful evidence when every single crime scene shows great struggle? Perhaps the killer is ahead of his time.

Vampires vs. the Bronx

Vampires vs. the Bronx (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Gentrification is vampirism appears to be the message in “Vampires vs. the Bronx,” a family-friendly horror-comedy that could have used a handful more scares to become memorable. It proves capable of milking key moments, like when a wooden coffin is opened and a sleeping bloodsucker suddenly wakes, how cameras and mirrors cannot capture their image, when their white faces turn thick and rubbery right before they go for the kill. These elements are not new, but they are executed rather well. But in terms of delivering consistent thrills, it is an area of improvement. When you’ve got nothing new to offer, make sure viewers overlook it.

Miguel (Jaden Michael), Bobby (Gerald W. Jones III), and Luis (Gregory Diaz IV) are best friends who discover that vampires are surreptitiously taking over their neighborhood. They are written as affable, level-headed teenagers who grew up in a diverse, working-class community; immediately we see how important The Bronx is to them not through their words but actions. For instance, they notice local businesses being bought and closed down as of late. They make their stand by trying to raise enough funds so that Tony’s bodega (Joel “The Kid Mero” Martinez)—a convenience store that welcomed them to hang out inside rather than outside where they might get into trouble with gangs and drug dealers—might avoid meeting the same fate.

The screenplay by Oz Rodriguez (who directs) and Blaise Hemingway is efficient in establishing a sense of place and community. The Bronx is a melting pot of food, cultures, ethnicities, languages. We feel the strength and tightness of this community. But it is not without dangers. Bobby, for instance, is being recruited by a known drug dealer (Jeremie Harris) to join his crew. Curiously, Bobby considers enlisting despite knowing that his father was killed precisely because he was involved in selling drugs. Clearly, the creatures of the night are not the only antagonists here. I enjoyed that at one point, however brief, vampires and drug dealers end up working together. Because, in a way, their endgame is the same: to suck the life of a community, to kill its potential, its future.

But this isn’t to suggest that the material takes a heavy-handed approach. No, not even when it appears that the boys lack father figures at home or that every white person we encounter is suspicious at the very least. For the most part, the mood is light, the pacing breezes by, and there is constant forward momentum. Even when vampire basics are introduced (what they are, the rules they must follow, what slows them down, what kills them), it never feels laborious. There is an effortlessness that’s quite refreshing. There isn’t a whiff of forced dialogue.

There is room for creative scares. For instance, the vampire in charge seems to have unlimited funds and can purchase entire buildings at a drop of a hat. That rule about the bloodsuckers having to be invited in is thrown out the window when they actually own the apartment complex. Although this idea is introduced, it’s disappointing that nothing is actually done to execute it. It’s the perfect setup for an all-you-can-eat-buffet. Another idea: Have the cops—or one cop—actually do something. There is a joke or two about them being useless in a neighborhood like The Bronx. Why not add dimension to the joke or perhaps even upend it? Surely these ideas are not too complex or too scary, even for a horror-comedy intended for the whole family.

Haunters: The Art of the Scare

Haunters: The Art of the Scare (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Jon Schnitzer’s “Haunters: The Art of the Scare” is a loving tribute to people who love to terrify people for a living—or just for fun. There are three subjects: legendary haunter Shar Mayer; Donald Julson, creator of Nightmare on Loganberry Haunted Attraction; and Russ McKamey, creator of the infamous McKamey Manor, highly controversial due to claims of assault and torture occurring there. Although energetic and well-intentioned, the documentary lacks a consistent propulsive trajectory. Just when it is beginning to get interesting due to the nature and type of questions being asked, it has a habit of jumping onto the next subject—as if it is afraid to tackle the more awkward or difficult subjects straight on. And so interest wanes.

Perhaps most highly regarded of the three is Shar Mayer, a haunter who has been in the business for decades. When the camera focuses on her face as she recalls specific haunts, there is a certain glint in her eyes that makes her look twenty years younger. She is so enthusiastic in retelling personal experiences, notice there is no need to cut to recordings of people trapped in mazes being scared witless. The reason is because there is already joy in her words and animated facial expressions. She does not need to say how much she loves what she does. We feel it in every fiber of her being. It is amazing how she embodies her character, for example, when a mask is plastered on her face. She is a true performer. Everything changes: her voice, her laughter, her posture, the way she blinks or moves her lips. It is not a surprise she has garnered so much respect in the haunt community.

The amusing portion of the film—which I found to be least interesting—is Donald’s passion for his Loganberry project. The haunt is composed of simple scares, and it is very family-friendly. Seeing glimpses of his haunt made me feel warm. It is ordinary, familiar, the kind I visited when growing up. Donald prepares months in advance, much to the dismay of his loving wife (who would rather prepare for Thanksgiving and Christmas), but the attraction is open for only four hours during Halloween night.

Donald’s love for his work is admirable, but I wished the documentary focused more on his sacrifices to make the haunt successful. For example, although the married couple are interviewed together, which creates an impression that all is well, there is telling a moment when Donald receives a text from his partner claiming she has had enough with all the Halloween planning—either head home the moment he received the text message or do not come home for the night. There is talk about going over budget and implications of Donald not living up to his potential. Here is a man who was the prop master for movies like “Minority Report” and “Van Helsing.” Clearly, he is great at his craft. And so his segment ought to have been more in-depth, more probing, more curious.

And then there is the McKamey Manor, infamous for having the reputation of being a torture chamber than an actual haunt. The film brings up an interesting point: Over the years, haunts have become more extreme because people require more to be scared. I enjoyed that Schnitzer is willing to ask Russ questions such as whether he himself would go through his own haunt. He provides a funny—but informative—answer. Still, there are serious concerns about his haunt: underaged teenagers being hired, the lack of a safe word for participants who wish to quit the intense attraction, legitimate concerns from neighbors not being taken seriously at all.

It is clear that Russ is a fun-loving guy. But there is an impression that he fails to take into account how people feel during or after the experience. We watch participants (not customers since there is no monetary payment provided, just cans of dog food which go to a good cause) being drowned, confined in tight spaces like coffins, eat questionable food which make them vomit, insects and bugs being placed on their faces. It is—and it is meant to be—extreme. Most heartbreaking is when participants watch videos of their humiliation. It brings up a number of moral and ethical questions.

“Haunters: The Art of the Scare” also consists of interviews of sociologists, historians, a creative director at Universal Studios, members of the Air Force, film producers. While their takes are welcome, their contributions are treated mostly as color commentary. I would rather have learned more about the history of horror and haunts, their relationship with economic downturns, how the fantasy or experience—being scared—is utilized as a tool to exorcise our own frustrations, fears, and concerns in real life.


Rabbit (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Luke Shanahan’s ambitious but undercooked debut film “Rabbit” is one of those movies that’s near impossible to talk about completely, should one choose to be mindful of providing spoilers, given that it pivots so out of left-field just about halfway through. It begins as a seemingly ordinary abduction story. A desperate woman (Adelaide Clemens) sprints through the woods and hooded figures in black stalk her. She is captured and we cut to her twin, Maude (also played by Clemens), who is living overseas as a medical student. Maude suspects that something is wrong. However, this is not the kicker.

Maude and her family are already aware that Cleo has gone missing. Enough time has passed that their parents decided to hold a funeral for their daughter. As the picture goes through the expository sequences, there is a constant foreboding feeling that something is going to go awry at any moment. There is expert use of silence, from Maude being picked up by her sister’s fiancé, Ralph (Alex Russell) at the airport to the extremely uncomfortable dinner with her parents. The father remains angry due to the fact that Maude refused to attend Cleo’s funeral. The silence is so heavy and emotions are so stifled that we actually hear the cutlery scraping the plate. It is incredibly sad to look at what this family has been reduced to.

Meanwhile, Maude’s nightmares are intensifying to the point where she begins to believe that the images in her head are visions of what is actually happening to her twin in real time. This is the point when Clemens truly shines. I appreciated that there is a precise but subtle moment when the character realizes she needs to act quickly if she were to have a chance of rescuing her sister. Clemens possesses a vulnerability and a determination about her just underneath desperation. I watched her sometimes convinced that Maude is a ticking time bomb. She, along with Ralph the fiancé, visit the backwoods where Cleo was last seen.

The screenplay gently takes our hand then violently pulls us into a remote forest where a poor community resides. It employs the usual creepy images, from the glaring rural folks who look unkempt and unwashed to beautiful wide shots of dominating pine trees that seem to stretch for miles. It is communicated to us that once an outsider steps on this land, escaping becomes near impossible. But there has to be a reason why Maude is the heroine… right? Surely she must be an exception.

Doubt is cast right from the moment the screen is filled with a red title card. No text. No other color. Just blood red and the screeching score that brings to mind a descent into a rabbit hole. I refuse to reveal anything beyond this point. But I will say this: I admired its willingness to deliver something different—less overt scares and more… increasingly alarming situations. The introduction of the second half is like a veil slowly being lifted from our faces. It is not always effective. But it sure is fascinating.

I felt great disappointment with this picture’s denouement. After having learned of everything that transpires in the community, viewers have worked up so much anger that we demand catharsis for the countless inhumane punishments the characters have endured. (No, it does not involve in-your-face torture scenes. Plenty is left for the imagination.) We deserve a release of emotions, to feel that the long journey is worthwhile. But the writer-director chooses to withhold. It is a curious choice; perhaps this avenue is taken to avoid cliché. But the final ten to fifteen minutes just does not feel right. There is a way to be ambiguous without us being hung out to dry.

The Addams Family

The Addams Family (1991)
★★ / ★★★★

Barry Sonnenfeld’s “The Addams Family” could have been just another forgettable live-action film translated directly from a cartoon or television show, but this outing is a real treat—to an extent. Although a comedy for all ages, it is willing to embrace a gothic mood, all the actors command strong presence, and credit to screenwriters Caroline Thompson and Larry Wilson for giving every character—even a CGI hand—a specific personality. Take one out and the absence is alarming. The work, however, is let down by a tired plot that goes on for longer than it should.

Every time the material breaks out of the scheme involving a lawyer (Dan Hedaya), a loan shark (Elizabeth Wilson), and the loan shark’s adopted son (Christopher Lloyd) stealing the Addams’ riches, it is almost like an exhalation. It is riotously funny when the eccentric Addams interact with regular folks without a palate for the macabre. A few standout scenes: The mother, Morticia (Anjelica Huston who never fails to milk every second as if it were her last and so we cannot help but be drawn to her), being taken aside by her daughter’s teacher to show a drawing of whom Wednesday (Christina Ricci) had chosen as her hero, Wednesday and Pugsley’s (Jimmy Workman) extremely gory performance at a school talent show, and an exchange at a lemonade stand between the Addams children and a Girl Scout. This is an excellent example of a central plot in excess. It ends up muffling a comedy that ignites seemingly without effort.

And so we sit through increasingly tired sequences of Gordon, the adopted son, disguising himself to be Uncle Fester who’s been missing for twenty-five years. The deceitful trio are convinced that by earning Gomez’ trust (Raul Julia), who they consider to be an idiot, the Addams patriarch will reveal the location of a vault filled with treasures. There are far too many scenes that communicate the same idea or joke: The impersonator has bitten off more than he bargained for because what this family values most is not wealth, their mansion, or otherworldly possessions. What they cherish most are memories, experiences, and family. (Torture, leather, blood-letting, a bit of electrocution, and serving body parts in a dish are icing on the cake.)

I did appreciate, however, that the writers allow Gordon to learn some tricks on the spot. For instance, by looking at old photographs, he attempts to feign possessing certain memories. An antagonist that is adaptable is curious—so there’s some level of entertainment there. Gordon’s mother and the Addams’ lawyer are far less intriguing by comparison. I suppose since they are not as peculiar as the Addams, the approach is to exaggerate behavior in order to make up for it. But that’s an inappropriate approach because greed is given a cartoonish hue instead of embracing the fact that the trait is in everyone. It’s just that some are more consumed by it than others. A little bit of genuine human touch goes a long way even for, or especially in, a comedy.

Still, “The Addams Family” deserves a marginal recommendation for the elements it does get exactly right. The terrific cast coupled with energetic and specific performances elevate what could have been another wan impersonation comedy to a genuine good time for children and children-at-heart alike. When it moves toward darker shades of humor, it tickles the bones.


Haunt (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Following a Halloween party, a group of college students decide to go through an extreme haunted house before calling it a night. Little do they know, however, that the masked actors are actually murderers who take advantage of the holiday for willing victims. Now, I know what you might be thinking: Yet another one of those movies? Well, yes. But—hear me out—it is a cut above pictures of its type because “Haunt,” written and directed by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, strives to deliver beyond the expected jump scares. It is capable of giving the creeps, occasionally suspenseful, at times thrilling, and two or three moments are genuinely scary. There is craft and creativity put behind the eventual grisly images.

Haunted house walkthrough stories almost always solely entertain using violence. While the work is not above showing a hammer to the face front and center, there is a semblance of a story at work here. One of the students, Harper (Katie Stevens), who did not plan on attending a Halloween party (she doesn’t even have costume) remains traumatized by a violent past. Her father was physically abusive and her mother would get the brunt of it. Harper is so tethered to her past that she, too, has gotten into a physically abusive relationship. We meet her trying to put concealer on her black eye. It is appropriate that the movie show Harper undergo various levels of torment—both physical and psychological.

And yet the most powerful image is simple and straightforward: the character getting punched in the face when she is on the ground. There is no camera trickery. No blood spurting. No crying. She is hit square in face and she takes it. It happens in a split-second and yet that moment reveals plenty. She wants to survive, to fight, to live—probably for the first time in a long time. This may be a throwaway scene to most viewers. But not to me. The core of the movie, after all, is Harper’s liberation from the prison—the cycle of violence—she had not allowed herself to escape from. Being trapped in a haunted house is a metaphor.

Although apparent that Harper’s friends (Will Brittain, Lauryn Alisa McClain, Andrew Caldwell, Shazi Raja, Schuyler Helford) are simply sheep lining up to be slaughtered, notice the movie’s attitude toward them. One or two can be annoying at times, but each can be likable if one looks hard enough. More importantly, the screenplay wishes us to root for them. When they are hunted, the perspective is through the person being chased, not the one going for the kill. Even when a victim is on the ground, bloody, and all hope is lost, we are on the ground with him or her. There is not one shot that shows the killers savoring the moment after the kill. The writer-directors do not wish for us to feel disgusted by the images we have seen.

On the contrary, they wish for us to be excited about what’s to come. The haunted house offers surprises. The first few rooms are lame—fake skeletons popping out of nowhere and all. But the deeper the characters go, there are puzzles to be solved. Sacrifices must be made. It is a throwback to the more decent “Saw” movies. I always feel uncomfortable when people must put their arm into a hole and try to guess what it is they are touching. There’s no doubt laughs will turn to screams. I enjoyed its ability to build tension, deliver false alarms, then go for the major arteries.

Those who enter with an open mind are likely to be entertained by “Haunt,” a movie about trauma that must be exorcised. Another nice touch: the killers wear masks—a clown, a ghost, a witch, and the like—but more terrifying is what’s underneath them. This is loyal to the picture’s themes.

The Carrier

The Carrier (2015)
★ / ★★★★

The survival thriller “The Carrier,” directed by Anthony Woodley, suffers from a lack of tension, suspense, and common sense. It seems unlikely to fail because a chunk of the story takes place inside a plane with infected people aboard. One touch from those housing the deadly bacteria can render another to grow massive tumors—often on the face— in a matter of minutes. There is no cure for the disease. According news reels, this strain of bacteria came about due to multiple drug resistance (MDR). As it plods along in a most brainless fashion, it becomes all the more apparent that the problem lies in the screenplay. Although four writers are involved (Woodley, Luke Healy, Helen Kingston, Stefan Mitchell), it appears not one possesses a thorough understanding of what makes a thriller engaging. In the middle of it, I wondered if they’d seen zombie movies. Because if they did, they’d know that the most effective ones are not really about the diseased (or deceased) but the living.

There is not one character worth rooting for. There are nice ordinary people aboard (Zora Bishop, Maria Adams, Healy), but this is not enough to create a compelling protagonist. Nice can quickly lead to boredom, as demonstrated here, because the decisions he or she makes become predictable. Always doing the right thing is not always right if you’re interested in building tension. As for the more unpleasant characters (Edmund Kingsley, Joe Dixon), it is all behavior. Clearly, the goal is to survive, but we never get a sense of how these figures think and make decisions that could kill or infect another. Context matters in a movie like this, particularly when morality is involved, but the writing is so skeletal and black-and-white that events occur simply because something, anything must happen.

What about the disease in question? Does it have a name? Is a percentage of the population immune? We don’t learn anything new or surprising about it. The media mentions MDR, but what makes this disease special or unique to this particular story? In other words, what makes this story worth telling within the context of this fatal disease? We do not even learn details regarding how it started or how it became a pandemic. Again, the screenwriters underachieve.

Tumors take over one’s face once infected. The makeup effects are preposterous, almost laughable. I got the impression masks were purchased from the dollar store and modified just a little, if that. Watch carefully. When an actor moves a certain way or when he angles his face in a particular manner relative to the camera, observant viewers are able to see the seams. It is so poor quality, it’s completely distracting. How are we supposed to buy into the drama, to feel sorry for the infected being abused, when a mask looks like it is about to fall off? Even on surface-level entertainment, it fails.

“The Carrier” is not a movie to watch but to be endured. It has nothing of value to say or do. It is without purpose or conviction. It just… exists. I would like to ask the filmmakers what inspired them to make the movie when there are zombie and disaster films available that actually attempt to make a statement about our environment, our place on our planet, and our flawed humanity. As for the studio and executives: Why not simply donate the film’s budget to the poor? Because if they couldn’t make something good, the least they could done was to try to do good.

I See You

I See You (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Right away images are off-putting. There is a certain flatness in the way it is shot. We would be standing in the kitchen, for example, and it feels like we are in a clinic or hospital waiting room. It isn’t because a room is a part of a posh and well-decorated home. It is more like something is inherently wrong in the way the picture is, at least initially, shot like a drama but it is supposed to be mystery-thriller in its core. Possibly horror. Note the harsh lighting. Inexplicable things are occurring in the home of Detective Greg Harper (Jon Tenney), lead investigator in charge of the case involving a nine- and ten-year-old boy having vanished. Like photographs and kitchen utensils going missing. Blankets being pulled down the bed as family members sleep.

“I See You,” written by Devon Graye and directed by Adam Randall, is a sinister thriller. And a confident one, too. It wants you to know that there is something wrong, something off. It dares you to think and find out what it is. Filled with red herrings, it is easy to fall into a trap. Although I did guess one (and a half) of its twists—which I will not reveal—about an hour in, this did not take away my overall enjoyment and appreciation of what is exercised. It is apparent that the writer and director are fond of Hitchcock’s ability to play the audience like a piano.

The wife of the detective, Jackie, is played by Helen Hunt. She plays a key role in the film not in terms of plot—even though she’s in front of the camera as long as any of her cast mates—but in pulling in the human drama. Jackie has had an affair with a former high school classmate (sweetheart?) and her son, Connor (Judah Lewis), and husband are so angry, they won’t even look at her in the eye. Hunt plays the character like a wounded bird. She knows what she did is wrong and wishes to make amends. And so the usual questions that come up in a typical broken marriage drama plague us. But the movie is more intelligent than to engage in such avenue. Just when we think we are about to get an answer, another strange event occurs in the house. The television turning on suddenly. A missing mug appearing in the most unlikely place.

Meanwhile, it appears the case surrounding the missing boys may have something to do with a copycat killer. Greg’s partner, Detective Spitzky (Gregory Alan Williams), recognizes the green pocket knives left at the scene of the crime. Years ago, you see, he had put away a man, still in prison, who was not only a known pedophile, he had the former missing boys’ clothes and other items in his possession during his arrest. It seemed like an open and shut case.

I wished the screenplay had delved further into Detectives Harper and Spitzky’s partnership. They are shown working together but not how well. I wished to observe the side of Greg we do not get to see at home. A case can be made that despite the nature of the crime he’s working on currently, it is actually worse being at home from his perspective. He sleeps on the couch. He looks as though he’s in pain every time he is required to exchange words with his wife.

The other half of the picture is off-limits because to reveal little is to reveal plenty. Let’s just say that the plot folds into itself. It is done with humor, it takes risks, it delivers suspense, and even a pinch of horror elements. The twist will impress, perhaps even surprise. (It’s certainly creepy.) But I am more delighted in how the sudden left turn is implemented to connect every seemingly contrasting strand—occasionally in a clever manner. I will not be surprised if, over time, the work achieves a cult following.

Family Blood

Family Blood (2018)
★ / ★★★★

The story could have been far more intriguing had it started at the point when the son discovers that his mother had become a vampire. This is the dramatic push of the final thirty minutes of “Family Blood,” a horror film so bloated with heavy-handed metaphor between drug addiction and vampirism, the work never gets the chance to take off. It appears that co-writers Nick Savvides and Sonny Mallhi (who also directs) are unable to decide whether the picture is a drama that just so happens to have horror elements or a full-on body horror movie. Due to this indecision, the screenplay suffers from a sort of malaise: curious one second, dead dull the next.

It even misses to underscore the true central protagonist. Supposedly, it is Ellie (Vinessa Shaw), a recently divorced mother with a history of drug addiction but wishes to continue to overcome it. She has recently moved into a new home with her two teenagers, Kyle (Colin Ford) and Amy (Eloise Lushina), who are unhappy and in constant fear that their mom would relapse. For a while, the story follows Ellie in the home, in support meetings, out in the streets when temptation is abound. But following a character does not magically make her more interesting than she actually is. While Shaw delivers a watchable performance, the screenwriters fail to communicate why she is worth following. What makes her special or unique? The character being portrayed by a recognizable face is not enough.

The more compelling protagonist is Kyle, an angsty teen who has a talent for sketching monsters—he is a young man who is keen on details: his art, the changes in his mother’s behavior. Kyle is an undercooked character and yet he is interesting already; imagine how more layered he could have been had the writers thought twice regarding which perspective to tell the story from. Kyle makes a sweet connection with a classmate and fellow troublemaker named Meegan (Ajiona Alexus), also an artist but within the realm of street art. These two are never given the light of day—pun intended—to be challenged, to develop, to evolve. It is curious because the level of violence is toned down which gives the impression that the picture is mainly targeted toward teens. If so, Kyle and Meegan should have been front and center. It appears, too, that the filmmakers do not have an understanding of their target audience.

It pokes fun of vampire tropes: sunlight, garlic, stakes, having to be invited inside one’s house and the like. For a while, it is cute, I guess, and I caught myself letting out a light chuckle or two. But other than a wink or a nudge, nothing is done with these tropes. Acknowledging them is not especially clever or creative. When the word “vampire” is finally uttered, is the intention to surprise the audience? I found the work to be consistently reaching at the lowest hanging fruit—maddening because I recognize the story’s true potential.

A child learning that his mother has become a sort of monster from his sketches should be a heartbreaking and terrifying affair. When someone has turned into a vampire, it means that the has died. It is correct for the material to be both a drama and a horror film. But the way in which the story is written and told fails to make a hybrid worthy of exploration. There is not one effective scare to be had here nor is there a truly sad or emotionally affecting moment. We should feel something strong when Kyle recognizes for the first time that the look his mother has given him is no longer filled with love but of animalistic hunger. I mean, if you were him, wouldn’t you feel alarmed in the least? The movie offers not even a superficial understanding of human nature and behavior.

The Thing

The Thing (1982)
★★★★ / ★★★★

John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” based on the novella “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, does not waste any time inspiring viewers to ask questions: Why is a man aboard a Norwegian helicopter intent on shooting a sled dog dead? Why does it appear as though the canine understands precisely what it is that’s going on amidst the utter confusion, following prior shooter’s death, in the American research station? What happened exactly at the Norwegian research base before being burned to the ground? What is its connection to the charred remains of grotesque corpses that resemble a fusion among man, animal, and beast?

The picture works as a high-level science fiction and horror hybrid because it tickles our deepest curiosities. Questions are brought up and answers are provided—at times almost immediately. But then some answers pave the way to new questions, and some of them do not have easy answers. The men at the American research facility must face a parasitic extraterrestrial life form that infiltrates another organism, assimilates with its host’s cells, and then imitates the host’s body. There is some evidence that the so-called Thing is able to retain the host’s memories: it knows how to perform daily tasks, to converse, and to recall details of events it has no way of knowing prior to infiltration. But the screenplay by Bill Lancaster is astute enough to refrain from answering this mystery directly because it is far scarier to have an understanding or appreciation but without knowing for sure.

There is a dozen men in the facility, and each one is given a spotlight. We learn about their jobs as people of science in addition to those who support these scientists to get the job done and to keep the facilities running smoothly. Some of their personalities may clash, but there is a sense of community among them. We believe that they have known each other for months, possibly years, in the way they have learned to tolerate one another’s eccentricities. Now is the time for their bonds, as strong or as tenuous as they are, to be tested in most unimaginable ways. Can you shoot a colleague or friend in face pointblank? How about with a flamethrower? Do you have it in you to cut someone else’s guide rope and leave him out in the Antarctic snowstorm?

The helicopter pilot, R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), serves as our central protagonist not because he is smartest or strongest but because he is able to keep his cool, and therefore think clearly, during the most intense situations. Notice how the other men are written: already ill-tempered even before first alien reveal, trigger-happy, excessively nervous or anxious, overly suspicious, gutless. Their personalities and quirks are in total contrast against MacReady’s.

And on the occasional moments when MacReady does lose control out of sheer terror, his reactions are played for laughs occasionally. The decision to provide comic relief, as evanescent as they are, is correct because tension generated reaches unbearable levels at times. There is a memorable scene, for instance, when men—suspected of being infected—are tied up and right next to them is a colleague, actually infected by the Thing, undergoing horrifying convulsions, tiny tentacles protruding from his face and body. There is the confined room… and then there is being tied up in that confined room with the boogeyman.

The star of “The Thing” is Rob Bottin’s unforgettable creature and special effects. It feels like the macabre images have been ripped right out from our nightmares: giant mouths with teeth that could chomp through a grown man’s wrists with ease, spider legs coming out of a decapitated head and then crawling about, dogs’ melted faces and bodies fusing into one big, bloody lump with long tentacles coming out of it and whipping about, bodies breathing in amniotic sacs… Blood and guts are generously thrown about, but notice they come in different colors and textures, too. Transformation from man to Thing is observed unblinkingly. It is without question that the filmmakers are willing to do whatever is necessary for us not to look away, mouths agape in gleeful horror.


Halloween (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

The first kill in director David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” left a strong impression on me. It isn’t because the kill cannot be seen from a mile away nor is it due to the brutality of it. It is because the type of murder victim is new. It shows that not even children are safe from Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle), the boogeyman known as The Shape who went on a killing spree in Haddonfield, Illinois in 1978.

In the original, not one child is harmed physically. They could have been but we get the impression that it is the killer’s choice not to. And so perhaps it is a part of Michael’s behavioral profile given that he himself was only a child when he committed his first murder. The restraint gave depth to the character. Here, once the victim’s final breath is released, I caught myself feeling excited at the prospect of a back-to-basics slasher flick. Notice the kill is without blood. No weapon is used. It is over just as soon as it began. There is a ruthless efficiency to it. However, I regret to report it does not live up to its potential.

If anybody could have successfully put “Halloween” back to its original form, it ought to have been Green. With impressive movies like “George Washington,” “All the Real Girls,” “Undertow,” “Snow Angels,” and “Joe” under his belt, he has shown that he has the ability to strip his stories of plot complications and focus solely on the human drama. Now, that may sound strange given that a horror film is in question, but since the plot of this picture revolves around how Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has dealt—or not dealt—with the trauma of her encounter with Michael forty years ago, the screenplay demands that it has a thorough understanding of human psychology, particularly how a traumatic event can not only alter but actually shape a person’s life. It is clear Curtis could have done more with the character had the screenplay given her more of a challenge.

While some effort is made, it is all so… ostentatious. We observe Laurie shoot a number of guns, wield hunting knives, and stroll across her panic room. The script makes a big deal of Laurie’s broken relationships with her daughter (Judy Greer) and granddaughter (Andi Matichak) because the former’s intense preparations—just in case Michael escapes the mental facility and returns to Haddonfield—have taken over her life. Nearly all of it comes across rather superficial, tacked on, unnecessary. Greer is not fit for the role while Matichak does not command a strong enough presence to be memorable. Subpar performances aside, these characters are so underwritten, I did not care whether they would or could survive the night. A part of me actually wanted them to get killed because they felt more like decorations rather than natural extensions of our iconic survivor.

In the middle of it, I wondered if it would have been the braver choice to make a horror film with a running time of only fifty minutes to an hour. Instead of plot or character contrivances, the focus is on the meeting of predator and prey—only we do not know which is which any longer since forty years have passed. After all, it is the filmmakers’ decision to ignore all sequels. It is only appropriate to just go for the jugular, so to speak.

Green’s interpretation of “Halloween” is surprisingly loud given that he excels in the quiet. I’m not simply referring to the school dance scenes or guns being used excessively. (Do not get me started on the generous use of score—especially during the most inappropriate times.) I also refer to the images. There is excessive display of gore and sharp weapons piercing through body parts. There is even a man whose head is split open and we see it front and center. There are moments when violence is implied, but these are few and far between.

There are those who are quick to say that this is pretty much a remake of the original. I think these individuals are not observant enough. While Carpenter’s 1978 classic is more interested in building suspense and breaking it at the perfect moment, Green’s attempt leans toward evoking thrills through homage. Carpenter employs light and shadows to imply violence while Green hoses us down with gore. And that makes a whole world of difference.

The Devil’s Candy

The Devil’s Candy (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

There is a moronic belief amongst various fundamentalist religions that heavy metal is the devil’s music. But what if heavy metal is the only sound that can drown out the devil’s eerie whispers? “The Devil’s Candy,” written and directed by Sean Byrne, is a lo-fi horror picture that is so effective, at times I was reminded of the excellent slasher picture “Halloween,” directed by John Carpenter. Although Byrne and Carpenter’s films are from entirely different sub-genres, their common link is how much they are able to accomplish with so little.

It uses a familiar template, but it is able to rise above what we come to expect from family-moving-into-a-murder-house with seeming ease and grace. The screenplay proves superior in that it drops small nuggets of foreshadowing on a consistent manner without being so obvious as to hammer us over the head by how it is trying too hard to be smart. And so when an important event happens, we recognize its portent details alongside being truly disturbed by the numerous plot developments. Its entertainment value never comes across as cheap.

It is willing to play with different ways to scare the audience, from jump scares, terrifying images, situational horror, to one’s belief, if any, when it comes to the supernatural. Each scene is exciting because we never know which type of scare we are about to get, assuming that it will not be a false alarm. The sheer energy of the material makes it highly watchable. In addition, the performances by Ethan Embry, Shiri Appleby, and Kiara Glasco—who play the family who purchases a house with a questionable history—are strong and this strength matches the story executed with specific vision. I cared about the Hellman family. I wanted them all to survive by the end even though it is unlikely.

Equally intriguing a performance is delivered by Pruitt Taylor Vince, a portly man who hears the voice of the devil. When bright lights are on him, the character does not look intimidating. However, when the light is dim or when we see only the outline of Ray’s large frame, he is fearsome and seemingly unstoppable. In some ways, he is like Carpenter’s Michael Myers: you can hit him, run away from him, or make him retreat… but he always comes back to get what he wants. He rarely speaks. And pain doesn’t seem to bother him all that much.

“The Devil’s Candy” offers no satanic rituals, no sacrifices involving goats or rabbits, not even men and women in robes chanting in a circle. No, it does not have a stupidly shallow, cliché dream sequence either. But it does offer a deeply unsettling feeling that burrows in the mind as it unfolds. By the end, you’ll be asking: Was there really the influence of the devil… or was the plot triggered by something far more grounded, something that culturally, specifically American culture, we are ashamed to talk about because of the stigma that comes with it?