Tag: horror

Let’s Scare Julie

Let’s Scare Julie (2019)
★ / ★★★★

The gimmick of Jud Cremata’s “Let’s Scare Julie” is the illusion of having been shot in a single take. But strip away this element and it becomes readily apparent that the picture offers nothing of value. Here is yet another movie that places all of its eggs in one basket and the gamble does not pay off. If you wish to sit through a film that feels like it is never going to end, despite having a running time of only eighty minutes, on top of being forced to endure irritating, shallow, and dumb teenage girls, then I bestow this unpolished and unfinished garbage my most enthusiastic recommendation.

Where should I start?

The first thirty minutes is spent in a bedroom where characters prank each other and tell scary stories—only the pranks are neither scary nor funny and the would-be terrifying accounts surrounding the house across the street sound exactly like any old neighborhood story. One sits through this first half hour marinating in sheer anger due to its lack of originality, imagination, creativity, or even a modicum of energy. When actors are not reciting their lines like robots, it comes across as though they were tasked to come up with what to say on the spot.

A suggestion for Cremata: How about actually putting in time and effort with your screenplay? Take pride in your work. For instance, shape it so that Emma, our heroine, played by Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson, is actually someone we can get behind. It is not enough that she has a sob story. Both of her parents being dead and the fact that she, along with her young sister named Lilly (Dakota Baccelli), must live with her insensitive cousin (Isabel May) is not good enough. What is it about this character that is worthy of the story being told? Not only is the lack of specificity astounding, Emma is written without sharpness, intelligence, fire, or resourcefulness. She is required to possess these characteristics especially when her little sister goes missing. But because she does not, it is like following a dry leaf being blown to and fro by the wind.

Surround the protagonist with different personalities who are actually relatable in some way. Taylor’s friends (Odessa A’zion, Brooke Sorenson, Jessica Sarah Flaum) are nasty pieces of work—but not nasty in a pointed way that suggests something deeper might be going on with the characters. They’re the generic spoiled brats, giggly white girls who have gotten away with so much due to their privilege. Notice how they welcome Emma the black girl upon meeting her. They make fun of her, they take advantage of her lack of confidence, they touch her in inappropriate ways, they go through her personal belongings. They have no respect for other people’s personal space; they don’t even notice that the new girl is feeling incredibly uncomfortable. They’re selfish. Yes, it’s ugly to watch. But there is no point behind these images. So it feels like our time is not being respected.

A girl named Julie just moved in across the street—in a house that is supposed to be creepy or haunted. Taylor and her vapid crew (with the exception of Emma) decide to go over there and pull a prank on Julie… because there is nothing else to do. This is when the work ought to have bared its fangs—that because these girls decide to bite off more than they can chew, they deserve some sort of comeuppance. However, at the same time, a screenplay with perspective—or simply having genuine love for its characters—can and will argue that whatever physical violence befalls these girls are not deserved—despite how we feel about them.

“Let’s Scare Julie” reeks of pessimism. The illusion of a single take is haphazardly put together. I noticed the first “trick” (translation: bad editing) not ten minutes into the film. As already mentioned, it doesn’t go out of its way to establish characters we can grow to care about—not even on the most superficial level. And get this: it does not have a third act. It just ends. The terrified Emma runs downstairs and… the movie simply fades to black. Did they run out of budget? Was there a massive storm that ended up destroying the set beyond repair? Was there a viral outbreak and everybody had to go home? Or did the writer-director simply stop giving a—? (A better question: Did he even start?)

Cremata, if you’re reading this, I’m waiting for an explanation. We demand it. And we deserve it.

Game of Death

Game of Death (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Although the cryptic item in “Game of Death” is a board game, I believe the film wishes to contradict the asinine idea that video games lead to violence—exactly by delivering content that is violent by nature as to underscore the point it aims to get across. The movie is bloody, borders on satire, very funny on occasion, and at times purposeful in making viewers feel uncomfortable. Yes, the horror is embedded in the gruesome kills. But the horror, too, lies in the fact that we as a society would rather place blame on art—like video games—or politicizing an urgent issue rather than looking in the mirror, taking responsibility, and evaluating how we can better ourselves not simply through prayers but by means of actionable policy.

The connection between board games and video games is established right from the opening credits, from the pixellated and colorful graphics to sound effects that bring to mind games from the NES and SNES era. There is even a montage in the latter third, specifically when select characters go on a killing spree, in which the movie steps away from live-action and dives into what appears to be a series of quirky 2D role-playing video games. It is creative and cute, but at the same time it is energetic and it is obvious that directors Sebastien Landry and Laurence Morais-Lagace are purposeful in what they wish to show and when.

But what the work wishes to communicate does not stop there. I think it also has something to say about white lives and white privilege. Coming off the opening credits we meet teenagers hanging out in a well-to-do suburban home, no parent in sight. They are sexualized, they do drugs, they call each other derogatory names (but are pet names to them); notice how the first few minutes is shot like a music video… and almost like softcore pornography at times. The images, the dialogue, the way the characters are dressed (or not dressed) are so over-the-top that the whole thing incites judgment.

Superficial viewers will decry, “These damn millennials! Bunch of do-nothings! *grumble grumble*” But that is only part of the point. The purpose is to instill a distinct impression so that when these fun-loving, lustful teenagers come across the board game ominously named Game of Death—a game that requires those who have chosen to participate to kill a certain number of people under a time limit or end up having their own heads explode at random—we believe we have a strong sense of who they are and thus can place each of them on a moral spectrum, such as who will decide to partake in murdering innocent people, who will refrain, who will bite it first, and who might change their minds.

A strong impression paves a way for efficiency, especially in a work that possesses satirical elements, which is critical in a movie that is barely an hour and ten minutes. There are seven characters here and there is no way to get to know them thoroughly (Sam Earle, Victoria Diamond, Emelia Hellman, Catherine Saindon, Nick Serino, Thomas Vallieres). So the approach must be broad but at the same time pointed enough to provoke a powerful emotional reaction—if that’s disgust, aggression, or waspishness then so be it.

Out of the seven, only one is a person of color (Erniel Baez). Tyler does not kill to save himself. Most of the others, who are white, decide whether it is all right to kill a friend, a creepy neighbor, a random stranger who appears at a wrong place and a wrong time (is it a sign?), an elderly person who is otherwise healthy, people who are sick or dying, and even an innocent child. They look at others and think, “How are their lives of value compared to mine? Should I take their lives so I can go on with mine?” Look at how the police never seems to catch up with the perpetrators.

It is without question that “Game of Death” is rough around the edges. Some of the dialogue on paper could have undergone more polish. Even some of the line deliveries ought to have been reshot. But I think the movie can be visually exciting and it is propelled by infectious energy. I couldn’t help but to recoil a little when a head was about to explode. It shows us in vivid detail how a head gets so swollen that looking at it becomes uncomfortable. When it pops like pimple and all the brain meat/juice slosh out and spray about, it is almost like a sigh of relief.

If you consider yourself to be an adventurous viewer, take a chance on this. It just might rub you the right way. If it doesn’t, well, at least you’ve seen a film in which the filmmakers are all in.


Hosts (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Writer-directors Adam Leader and Richard Oakes attempt to tell a home invasion story with a supernatural twist. While the intent of delivering originality is commendable, the work fails to take off in interesting and unexpected directions. If you simply wish to see a person’s skull get smashed into pieces by a hammer, go see this. Or perhaps watching someone get stabbed fifty times is more your cup of tea. It is brutal, yes, but let me tell you that the picture is just violent: it is without substance, intrigue, or sense of mythos. On offer is an empty, boring experience. Skip to the final paragraph for an alternative.

Perhaps the film’s most crucial mistake is that it fails to be about anything. Just because things are being paraded on screen does not mean that images are of value. There must be connective tissues that tie these images together. Themes behind such connective tissues must be ironed out. Especially in the horror genre, the work must inspire us to contemplate that maybe what it is actually about is not necessarily what we see but what it makes us feel about ourselves or what it forces us to consider about our environment, our society.

Consider, for instance, that the story here takes place during Christmas. Traditionally, Christmas is a time when family members get together and catch up, for better or worse. Thus, exploring the subject of alienation is a layup. I would even go as far to say that it is obvious and expected.

The home invaders being possessed by a spirit, demon, or whatever supernatural entity (the screenplay failed to clarity this) could have functioned as commentary about being forced to get together and socialize, to compare notes and lives. The holidays is supposed to be a joyous time… but at the same time some people feel the need to wear a mask in order to come across as more successful or impressive. Others pretend to be happy even though they are far from it. No one wants to look bad or to feel small. And so that observation should have been channeled into anger on film.

But viewers fail to feel that—or any genuine emotion—because the work puts more effort into making blood and guts look realistic or cool and making light emanating from characters’ eyes and mouths look creepy. The technical details mean nothing if what should be concrete ideas remain amorphous throughout the picture’s running time. The movie is barely ninety minutes but it feels closer to two hours—and that’s being generous.

I would say watch Michael Haneke’s 1997 “Funny Games” again (or for the first time)—it is a terrific example of how you make a home invasion movie that is about something. It is violent, realistic and raw, but it demands that viewers not be passive about their experience. “Hosts” does the opposite: it ends up lulling viewers to sleep because it goes under the assumption that those watching are there only to see violence and effects. In actuality, horror fans sign up for an experience. There is a difference, and this turkey seems unaware of it.

The Crazies

The Crazies (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

The sort of zombie flick “The Crazies,” a remake of George A. Romero’s 1973 film of the same name, offers enough horrifying moments and the occasional solid jolts to deliver a good time. Fans of the viral outbreak sub-genre will know precisely what to expect: a small town becomes the epicenter of an unknown disease and a special group attempts to escape both the infected and soldiers whose mission is to exterminate civilians—regardless of the status of their health. But the picture is in good hands because director Breck Eisner understands the importance of building tension and suspense before delivering the inevitable violent and gory “Gotcha!” moments.

It offers a different take on the undead; instead of lumbering lunkheads attempting to take a big bite on their victims, the infected here takes a more unsettling route. Once housing the virus, a person slowly loses control of himself or herself. A typical symptom involves being easily agitated or angered. There are a few who become catatonic. Loved ones describe the infected as “not themselves.” It mirrors some signs of dementia’s early stages. The next level is violence. In the opening scene, we observe a man walking into a baseball field with a shotgun in hand, apparently intending to create a massacre. Sheriff David (Timothy Olyphant) and Deputy Russell (Joe Anderson) manage to stop the man just time.

Many of the scares are effective because the screenplay by Scott Kosar and Ray Wright proves knowledgeable of what terrifies most people: cramped spaces, being burned alive, an intruder in one’s home, the threat of being hurt or killed by someone who you thought cared about you. This makes the morgue, farmhouse, and car wash scenes stand out. By tapping on common and familiar fears, the writers give their material a fighting chance against what we expect to happen: clamoring for a weapon, begging for help or for the assailant to stop, last-minute saves. Couple this with a plot that constantly moves forward, what results is a watchable horror film.

The look of the zombies is not particularity inspired. I believe the director as well as editor Billy Fox are aware of this shortcoming. Notice how we are only provided quick glimpses of the infected—especially those in the more advanced stages of the sickness. I’ve seen better cosmetics and practical effects in B-movies from the ‘80s. I felt the filmmakers could have used this limitation to their advantage, like employing harsher lighting and shadows. Even more of a challenge: using interesting and awkward camera angles to hide—or highlight—what they have to work with. Since so many elements in the film are expected—although done relatively well—taking on more extreme approaches might given the work more personality.

I felt “The Crazies” wishes to respect and improve upon the original—so much so that it takes itself very seriously. (Notice how humor is present but quite restrained.) But this comes with a cost. It creates an impression that those in charge are uncertain when it comes to taking on big risks for sake of attaining big rewards. They tend to go with a safe bet—which is fine because the final product is entertaining enough. But one cannot help but feel as though it could have been a different beast entirely had the strategy for storytelling been as wild and intelligent as the type of zombies showcased therein.


Alone (2020)
★ / ★★★★

There comes a point in “Alone” when it stops being about survival and it becomes about dating. By then it is crystal clear: It is a movie made for Tyler Posey fans who thirst to see him in various states of undress—lying in bed, hanging out in the living room, taking a shower in the rain—not for horror fans who wish to lay eyes on gore by the bucketloads and appreciate intricate cosmetics, to experience carefully calibrated suspense and jump-out-of-your-seat terror, to get excited by the dazzling creativity sashaying on screen. It cannot be denied that this is a toothless and boring zombie picture, a manufactured product to be avoided at all cost.

Consider it to be an American version of Cho Il-hyung’s “#Alive” in which Matt Naylor, the writer of this film, had a hand in helming the screenplay. The parallels between Cho and director Johnny Martin’s films are staggering. A young man finds himself stuck in an apartment following a mysterious outbreak that turns people into hyperactive cannibals. (Translation: modern zombies that can sprint and climb.) When food, water, and his sanity run out, the protagonist finds a last-minute reason to live after seeing a fellow young woman in an apartment right across his balcony. But what “#Alive” excels in, even though it is not a consistently strong picture, is that it maintains the idea that it is first and foremost a survival story. This American version not only winks one too many times, it makes kissy faces, too. Want a selfie with that?

At some point, we are supposed to believe that Aidan (Posey) is so desperate for food that he chooses to break into a neighboring apartment despite the dangers possibly waiting in the vents and hallways. But when finally facing a cupboard that contains food, he takes the time to pick and choose which ones to take with him. It defies common sense. To be convinced that Aidan were actually starving, he would not be shown reaching ever so slowly into the cupboard with his gentle hands. The hands would be manic, out of control, as if possessed by an evil spirit wanting to lash out. Aidan would be shown breaking into plastic wrappers with his teeth like a rabid dog.

The editing would be convulsive, possibly choppy, as if to reflect a reawakening of all senses. The sound design would jolt us into paying attention—perhaps causing us to flinch because the noise may attract the attention of the undead lumbering about on the other side of the wall. Close-ups of our protagonist’s demented eyes would be prevalent—reminiscent of red zombie eyes when their teeth sink deep into warm human flesh. Sharp filmmakers with coy sense of humor might even wish for us to appreciate the orgasm a character experiences after licking a scoop of peanut butter off his unwashed fingers.

But that would look “ugly,” you see, unappealing—perhaps even gauche or inelegant—in the eyes Posey fans. He must look handsome even when his character has not had anything to eat for days, drinking only alcohol for a similar amount of time because tap water had been shut off.

Common sense is a funny thing in horror films. When a horror picture is firing on all cylinders, the occasional lack of this critical element can be overlooked so easily. But when the work is dead awful, as the case here, the viewer cannot help but to nitpick at every little thing. This is what unbearable boredom does; attention must be directed toward something because the brain is not meant to shut down. This movie strives to turn off the very thing that keeps us alive. Do not let it.


Lucky (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Natasha Kermani’s “Lucky” is more interested in delivering a message than it is about creating a movie that just so happens to have a message. Specifically, its goal is to make a statement about the every day violence—overt and subtle—that women experience, whether it be at home, at work, or out in public: that the female gender, in general, tend to compartmentalize and go at it alone even when it is apparent that they are in need of help or a friend who can listen and empathize. This is told through the guise of what appears to be a standard slasher film.

I say “appears” because the screenplay, written by Brea Grant (who also stars as our protagonist named May), has a self-awareness about it. For instance, when May, having noticed a masked man standing in the garden and looking through the glass door in the middle of the night, jolts her husband awake, groggy Ted (Dhruv Uday Singh) claims that it is simply the person who stops by every night to try and kill them—so calmly, so casually, as if it were the norm. Like washing the dishes or taking out the trash. The first act does a terrific job in snagging our attention. But May appears to have no memory of this masked man. What exactly is going on in this household?

Because the premise is so curious, we watch a little closer. For instance, we learn to hang onto every line of dialogue and how it is delivered. We readily spot strange images like cookies decorated with sad faces in an event that is supposed to be happy or celebratory or a reflection on mirror not quite matching the present action. Is the tone or mood supposed to be dream-like? There are even times when it feels as though satirical elements are present.

Herein lies the problem: Because we grow sensitive to the most minute details, we note the amateurish acting, the awkward pauses between exchanges, the lack of polish in how words are strung together. Look at the physical confrontations between May and The Man (Hunter C. Smith), how they tend to look overly choreographed—toxic when the editing takes a backseat. Instead of delivering horrifying or thrilling encounter, the dance leans toward comedy. Blood that spurts out of a character’s neck has the viscosity of vomit. Meaty chunks don’t leak out of veins or arteries.

And what about common sense? Time and again May is able to overpower The Man, but she never bothers to take his mask off, especially when the police has made a habit of asking, “Can you describe how he looks like?” She also knows that when The Man has been incapacitated, his body disappears. And so, for the love of god, why is our heroine compelled to look away from the body within two seconds of disabling him? The answer is so that the formula can be repeated again and for the movie’s running time to stretch all the way to eighty minutes. Need I go on?

You cannot introduce a level of self-awareness while also playing it dumb and lazy.

These could have been overcome, quite handily, had the screenplay offered new and compelling ideas in a breathless manner while at the same time managing to explore and connect the dots already introduced. Having a message is terrific. But everything else around it must be equally strong, if not stronger, because these tend to prop up or elevate whatever is being communicated. If the audience is distracted by the most elementary shortcomings, how can the message—however important, relevant, or urgent—be taken seriously?


Shook (2021)
★ / ★★★★

Writer-director Jennifer Harrington opens “Shook” in a tight frame: three ecstatic makeup influencers on a private red carpet event with adoring media asking easy, breezy questions meant to underscore the fab life of being an internet sensation. But then it cuts to a wide shot. It turns out that the “private red carpet event” is taking place in a random, dark, janky parking lot and that the red carpet itself barely fifteen feet long. It mirrors Rudy Giuliani holding a humiliating press conference in the back parking lot of Four Seasons Total Landscaping.

It is a hilarious image and so viewers cannot be faulted for thinking that the rest of the picture will skewer the idea of controlled or filtered images, posted for the sake of likes, heart emojis, and self-validation. “Finally!” I thought, “A horror movie that steps out of the gate from a specific angle. This should be good.” But what a nosedive. Aside from this terrific opening scene, the rest fails to measure up. It turns out to be yet another the-killer-is-actually-inside-the-house movie.

Think of Wes Craven’s “Scream,” specifically the classic scene with Drew Barrymore answering the telephone and the killer wanting to play a game. Now, remove all the self-awareness, subversive humor, and creativity. Take away the likability, personality, and star quality of the lead, too. Then turn off the lights so that rooms are as dark as possible, making it difficult to make sense of the action at times. Lastly, turn the energy dial from 10 to about 1.5—2 if you’re feeling generous. Now you have an accurate idea of the torturous, redundant, interminable, worthless eighty-eight minutes that “Shook” offers. By the end of it, I wanted a shower because it was such a depressing and empty experience. What possessed the writer-director to make this movie? What’s the point?

Mia (Daisye Tutor) is supposed to be an influential figure, but we are never shown how or why. If her genre, or expertise, is cosmetics, then it is the writer’s job to make the viewer, who may not be interested in makeup, feel as though the subject’s occupation or passion is at least worthy of looking into. Makeup is creative, fun, and has an extended history across cultures. And if Mia were solely in it for money or fame, then that should be clear, too. In other words, it is the writer’s job to establish interest, curiosity, or intrigue outside what will eventually happen to the character. Because if there is no reason to root for the character, then why should we care whether she lived or died? This is not Horror 101, not even Storytelling 101; it is Common Sense 101.

Putting that aside, tension is non-existent in this boring and repetitive slasher. While social media is a crucial aspect of the tale, it is apparent that the filmmakers care more about how private chats or comment sections are presented rather than getting the feeling of a scene precisely right. Perhaps this might have worked if the material leaned more toward horror-comedy, but in either case its imagination has flatlined by the fifteen-minute mark. You sit there and wonder what the storyteller wishes to say about the protagonist, about our culture, about us as consumers.

My disappointment—and anger—stems from the fact that “Shook” could have been a movie of real substance. And yet minute after minute the choices made are lazy, uninspiring, and full of pessimism. It expects us to be brain dead, to consume its low-calorie “entertainment,” and tolerate it. Instead of elevating the horror genre—a genre that I love—it cheapens it, it spits upon it. I felt no passion in this work, no color, no flavor, no joy, no purpose. It’s just… there.

No Escape Room

No Escape Room (2018)
★ / ★★★★

Here is yet another horror movie that attempts to capitalize on the idea of escape rooms but fails to offer an original contribution of its own. It could have been about something. Consider, for instance, that the story opens with Michael (Mark Ghanimé) and Karen (Jeni Ross), a father-daughter on their way home because the ranch they wanted to visit turned out to be closed.

We notice immediately that this relationship is strained, possibly a result of divorce. It is apparent that the teenage daughter’s disappointment—and anger—is not just because of the parent’s failed attempt at bonding or her raging hormones. The issue lies far deeper, perhaps feelings of abandonment, but the screenplay by Jesse Mittelstadt is adamant in functioning on a most superficial level. To exorcise an emotion, thought, or trauma—conscious or subconscious—is precisely what the horror genre is for. Yet the writer appears to have neither understanding nor appreciation of this. What results is a movie that is flavorless, substandard, certainly without soul.

Lack of substance aside, a horror movie can get a pass for being riotously entertaining. “No Escape Room” also fails on this department. Michael and Karen end up in a house with three other players: the couple, birthday girl Melanie (Kathryn Davis) and the cowardly Tyler (Hamza Haq), and a man named Andrew (Dennis Andres) who jokes as being the spy during the game’s sixty-minute duration. Simply by looking at the participants, even if one hadn’t seen a single movie surrounding escape rooms, it is no challenge to predict the death order correctly. There is no entertainment to be had because there is minimal element of surprise right down to the archetypes. (And you don’t have to listen closely to detect the deadness in the dialogue.)

I enjoyed a few of the rooms. The overall theme is a throwback to the past. There are wonderful props like grandfather clocks, tribal masks, vintage phones, creepy paintings, surgical documents, and ominous film projectors. The five participants are tasked to find the five people who failed to make it out during the previous round and escape with them. But it is said there is a killer inventor on the loose so vigilance is of utmost importance. Every room has a specific personality, particularly in the lower regions of the house—where dead bodies are not just dead bodies. Or so it seems. Not only did the father-daughter, the couple, and the odd man out sign a waiver, they consumed tea that might have been drugged.

And so the movie jumps—needlessly—into the realm of is-it-real or is-it-not-real scenario. It is executed so haphazardly, the minimal interest it is able to milk out dissipates less than halfway through its eighty-minute running time. By this point, the idea of finding the key to get access to the next room is thrown out the window. The picture is then reduced to cardboard cutouts running around the house, screaming and questioning reality. It is boring, lazy, and devoid of creativity.

Director Alex Merkin employs the camera as is instead of a device for storytelling. At some point, two characters end up in the house of horror’s ventilation duct system. The dull script requires the actors to express fear and paranoia… but because the director fails to do anything with the camera, like experimenting with filters, mode of shooting, or angles, there is not a whiff of claustrophobia created—let alone panic or terror. There is, however, comedy due to the sheer ineptness of what’s presented on screen. There are few here that should have never made it into the final product.

The Queen of Black Magic

The Queen of Black Magic (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Screenwriter Joko Anwar, writer-director of the surprisingly terrifying “Impetigore,” underachieves in “The Queen of Black Magic,” a horror film more in love playing with gore and making the audience squirm than establishing a fascinating mythos we can sink our teeth into. Notice that when violence and blood are not front and center, there is an occasional flatness to the dialogue, the listlessness of the camerawork is palpable, and the setting feels like a set rather than a place of foreboding. What results is parade of horror elements without substance behind them.

The picture is directed by Kimo Stamboel, and perhaps it might have been a terrific idea for him to have revisited Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” prior to shooting a single frame. Because the orphanage in this story, at least in terms of aesthetics, has a real personality to it. During its dull expository sequences, I caught my eyes noticing patterns on the floor (triangles are prevalent), old photographs hung on walls, wallpapers and how the light hits them, and various knickknacks sitting on shelves. It really does look like an established orphanage, one with a history worth exploring. It is a sizable place; the game room, for example, is so far from, say, the main living room, that children are unable to hear their parents yelling and screaming during a time of calamity. I craved for a tour of this place. Is it built on an ancient burial ground?

Hanif (Ario Bayu) spent a significant part of his childhood in this orphanage. Having received news that Mr. Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unru), the ophans’ father-figure, is dying, Hanif decides to take his wife (Hannah Al Rashid) and three children (Adhisty Zara, Ari Irham, Muzakki Ramdhan) for a visit. Hanif’s best friends from the orphanage and their wives arrive, too. There are a few attempts at comedy, particularly the guests’ air of privilege (especially their kids) compared to the simpler lives of the current residents, but these come across contrived. Something about the Wi-Fi being weak, the landlines not working, and the food on the table not being enough. In terms of visuals, there is already a clear divide between rich and poor characters, so these are low hanging fruit.

It is expected that this place is full of secrets and so what matters is how they are excavated to create a truly horrifying experience. It fails to deliver on this level because the material spends more effort delivering shock than suspense. However, this isn’t to suggest that it is not capable of the latter. It is. A wonderful scene involves a boy watching a VHS tape—alone and he knows he isn’t supposed to—and in the recording is a woman attempting to walk about with broken feet. We know precisely where it is heading—but it unfolds so slowly (compounded with quick shots of the room from every angle) to the point where we can feel our pulse racing. According to Alfred Hitchcock, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

But such instances of eye-popping moments prove evanescent. When all else fails, CGI centipedes and caterpillars are employed and the actors must pretend these bugs are crawling on their skins, into their mouths, and the like. It is unconvincing on two levels: the CGI is not first rate and the performers tend to exaggerate by jumping about as if their hairs were on fire. However, when actual centipedes are used and a clump of them wriggles about in blood, the actors’ reactions are spot-on. It’s because they’re responding to something tangible.

We learn next to nothing about the titular character outside of her motivations. The way she looks is uninspired, as if the work were stuck in the late ‘80s, maybe early 90s. For instance, she must dress in black, her hair must be a mess, she must look grimy, and she must have more weight than her female screen counterparts. There is nothing progressive or modern about this movie or its style storytelling. If you’re simply going to repeat what had worked before, at least actively work to create an impression, a mere semblance, that what is being shown on screen is innovative.

The Empty Man

The Empty Man (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

David Prior’s “The Empty Man,” based on the graphic novel by Cullen Bunn, already clocks in at about two hours and twenty minutes, but I believe this is a rare instance in which a horror film might have benefited had it possessed a running time closer to three hours. It is a long journey, filled with curiosities, mysteries, and terror—which opens in 1995 as two American couples stumble upon an ancient entity in Ura Valley, Bhutan at the end of their five-mile hike. This pre-title sequence leads us to believe that the story will be supernatural horror in nature. But the deeper it digs, my mind couldn’t help but think about Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.”

Perhaps it is because there is a palpable sense of foreboding about it. Cut to 2018, we follow a former detective named James Lasombra (James Badge Dale) who chooses to help a neighbor (Marin Ireland) when her daughter (Sasha Frolova) goes missing. “The Empty Man made me do it,” is smeared on Amanda’s bathroom mirror and it is written in blood. Despite this ominous message, the cops have reason to believe it is a straightforward runaway case. Yet something tells James that the scenario is a bit off and so he decides to interview one of Amanda’s friends at the high school. Again, there is the mention of The Empty Man.

According to urban legend, if you find yourself on a bridge in the middle of the night, come across an empty bottle, and blow on it, you’d hear The Empty Man’s footsteps on the first night. On the second night, you’d actually see it. And on the third, you’d feel it—because it found you. What’s brilliant about this picture is that we are presented the source of this urban legend—the extended pre-title sequence in the Himalayas. And so when the core is chiseled and misshapen by time and word-of-mouth, we remain to have a solid reference. I wished more horror movies that deal with modern urban legends possess the patience that this work offers.

I enjoyed watching Dale as a man who is both guilt-ridden and in mourning of his wife and young son’s passing. We see glimpses of his nightmares, how he wasn’t there when his spouse lost control of the vehicle on the icy road. Dale plays James as a man who wants to move forward—choosing to take on mysterious case on an unofficial capacity—but his past holds him back like a giant boulder. As the Amanda case gets more bizarre, we can read in Dale’s eyes that perhaps James had bitten off more than he could chew. But he cannot quit; he is too entrenched.

Here is a story in which an argument can be made that the supernatural angle is less scary than what is really going on. Because in the former, without giving important details away, only minimal evidence can be found, circumstantial at best. Myths, rumors, and urban legends—they’re just words that can be heard, read in books or online articles and blog posts. But when there is tangible proof that something sinister is afoot, one that involves people in your lives, this is far more chilling because it forces you to re-evaluate how you’re living your life, how you see random people in the street, and perhaps relationships closest to you.

This is the point when the movie begins to fall apart. The overall mystery is fascinating and the lead character is someone we wish to follow, but because the film, especially since it is of a certain genre, feels the need to wrap up under a time limit, the resolution is rushed to the point where it gives the impression that it is uninterested in tying up loose ends. Clearly, the writer-director is more than capable of doing so because the work has proven its patience and penchant for details. When the film is already nearly two hours and thirty minutes, the correct choice is to take the story to completion even if it requires an hour more.

“The Empty Man” misses the mark by a hair.


Antebellum (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’ “Antebellum” makes a statement that although African-American slavery is bound in history books, racism and racial inequality persist to this day, that systematic oppression of non-whites, especially the black community, is embedded in our nation’s marrow. While the intention speaks many painful and angering truths about where we are as a modern American society when it comes to race, it cannot be denied that the film is plagued by missed opportunities. For one, it relies too often on plot twists to shake the viewer out of ennui—ironic because it commands puissance when it simply focuses on how slaves are treated in a plantation run by Confederate soldiers (Eric Lange, Jack Huston, Robert Aramayo).

It is near impossible to describe the plot without giving anything away, but I will tread carefully. The thesis of the picture involves ghosts of the past having the power to linger and haunt the present. We follow Veronica (Janelle Monáe) in the plantation as she witnesses her neighbors being shot after having been captured for trying to escape, black bodies being cremated in a brick outhouse that’s smaller than a shack, whites exercising their power in every look, breath, and implication. Notice that during these moments the camera possesses a certain level of alertness, so much so that it brings attention unto its itself. But why?

This is because although the surface is a drama, there is something far more sinister at play here. It is a horror film because it holds up a mirror on who we are as a twenty-first century society. Black people may no longer be picking cottons in the field till their backs are raw, black people may be able to participate in elections and hold positions of power, and black people are no longer whipped unconscious for simply giving a white man a certain look. But it doesn’t mean racism has been uprooted. It’s just that oppression has evolved, took on a different form. And so the movie changes form, too. When it does (without giving anything away), intrigue is thrown out the window.

I found it has nothing compelling to say about race or race relations. People of color live and breathe images that are portrayed on screen and so there is nothing surprising or revealing about them. In other words, the screenwriters have failed to relate or connect the movie’s second form to its original state in a way that serves as a shock to the system. In fact, it does the opposite. The pacing gets mired in languor and the tone’s urgency is spirited away. It becomes a struggle to care. It shouldn’t be this way considering that fact that when you turn on the television these days, there is constant reminder that black lives are worth less than white lives.

“Antebellum” is a movie of the moment, but it lacks special insight that allows it to stand strong alongside, for example, Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and Remi Weekes’ “His House.” Showing brutality is not enough nor is providing a clever plot twist or two. Although it showcases beautiful cinematography, particularly outdoor shots of the plantation, this alone isn’t enough either. The positive elements must be put together in a way that is rewarding and satisfying as a movie and as a statement piece, especially when its goal is to incite conversation.

The Pale Door

The Pale Door (2020)
★ / ★★★★

It looks and feels like everyone on screen simply puts on costumes of cowboys and witches, and somehow the fashion show is supposed to be enough to get us to care about its characters, to be curious of the mythos involving the American West and witchcraft, and to be entertained just because there is a body count. “The Pale Door” is an insult to the horror-western sub-genre; not only does it lack the fangs to compel the viewers into paying attention, it lacks the bite in order to allow the work to stand out from its contemporaries and leave a positive, long-lasting impression.

The screenplay by Cameron Burns, Aaron B. Koontz, and Keith Lansdale offers plot but no drama, dialogue but no conviction, conflict but no reason. It creates a depressing film, the kind that pushes you deeper and deeper into the couch until you nod off and dream about something else far more interesting. This is a positive alternative considering that being awake and trying to pay attention breeds confusion, frustration, anger, and—eventually—total surrender. As I turned off the television, I felt a pang of regret. “Why didn’t I turn it off halfway through?”

Still unconvinced? Then let’s go on. A gang of thieves, led by Duncan (Zachary Knighton), are hoping for a massive payday. According to their intel, in which Wylie (Pat Healy) is in charge of, a train is transporting a safe that houses great riches. But once the thieves manage to get aboard, there is no safe. Instead, there is a chest… and something appears to move inside.

This so-called train heist is executed so poorly, for a minute I had to convince myself it wasn’t a spoof. There is no energy, no excitement, no semblance of tension. We hear gunshots going off (with the occasional blood spatter on the window), but the film offers no discernible choreography. We have no idea from which angle the thieves are shooting from, for instance. Targets simply drop dead as if they had brain aneurisms. It’s so laughable and silly… until you realize there is more than an hour left of the picture.

It doesn’t get any better. Soon one of the thieves is gravely injured. They are informed there is a town a nearby. Perhaps there is a doctor there who can help. This is where the witches come in. Although I admired the look of their true form—diseased and rotting, as if they’ve been burnt, dumped in a well, and marinated there for weeks—there is nothing about them that’s unique or interesting. To make them modern-scary, these animalistic witches are capable of climbing walls and ceilings. But why? It isn’t enough that they do not die when shot in the head and the like. They are required to behave like zombies and Japanese ghosts. What is the inspiration for this drivel? It comes across as though the approach is simply to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. But it is not done in a fun or joyful way; it reeks of lacking concrete ideas.

The heart of the picture is supposed to be the relationship between two brothers, Duncan and Jake (Devin Druid), orphaned at a young age due to intruders having broken into their home in the middle of the night to kill their parents. However, neither of these characters are written in such a way that we feel their humanity during quiet moments. They speak of their dreams, their goals, and their love for one another, but not once do we get a chance to feel their resolution since the work does not possess the ability to show how drama unfolds. Just because there is something being shown on screen does not mean there is actually something occurring.

The Wolf of Snow Hollow

The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“The Wolf of Snow Hollow” tells the story of a man who struggles with a disease. When the beast takes over, he becomes unrecognizable even to those who are closest to him. When challenged and pushed to a corner, he retaliates by bringing on the hurt. And when he feels he is no longer in control, he proves to have a knack for going for the kill because he is observant and sensitive underneath the police uniform. Officer John Marshall (Jim Cummings) is an alcoholic. And his latest case involves having to hunt for a serial killer who is believed by some to be a werewolf.

Cummings writes, directs, and stars in this gem of a horror-comedy: riotously funny one minute, horrifyingly gruesome the next, and lodged in between are moments of genuine humanity. John is a father, a son, a police officer, and a man whom the town looks up to for leadership and assurance when things go horribly wrong. Although John has these roles, he is unable to fulfill or excel at them—not even a single one. And so, feeling most inadequate, he goes home and turns to what he knows best: being an alcoholic. Down he goes the rabbit hole. The next day begins and he finds himself a foot deeper into the unsolved case. The vicious cycle continues.

There is overt violence—women being stalked and attacked under a full moon, their severed body parts and eviscerated organs exposed in daylight as investigators gather evidence and the media fishes for juicy details in time for the six o’clock news—and there is the metaphorical variety described above. Wonderful about the picture is its zen in balancing both; one fails to shine without the other, just like how there can be no comedy without drama. There is never a one-dimensional moment, not even when the werewolf shows itself fully and goes for the jugular.

Alcoholic John is surrounded by people who love and care about him, from his seventeen-year-old daughter (Chloe East) who tries to be understanding even though it is apparent John has always put his job ahead of her, fellow officer Julia Robson (Riki Lindhomme) who always seems to bring a calm to his manic energy, to his father, Sheriff Hadley (Robert Forster), who insists on going to work even though his body is beginning to fail him. Through their eyes, we not only learn about our protagonist, we see him clearly when his own mind is invaded by fog. Like Cummings’ brilliant debut film “Thunder Road,” this film is a story of redemption. Despite the gruesome killings, it coruscates with optimism, humor, and pathos.

Particularly outstanding is its editing. The more pressure is inflicted upon John, the more fragmented the images are put together. It creates an impression that the subject is drowning, splashing about madly, desperately gasping for precious air. Yet, like a classic alcoholic, John fails to ask for help. Jokes are built upon John’s inadequacies, histrionics, and fears. But these jokes prove informative because there are deep truths to them. The screenplay tasks us to be like the trio who love and care for John: We must separate the monster from the man.

The Deeper You Dig

The Deeper You Dig (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Here is a ghost story that doesn’t rely on apparitions popping out of corners to create entertainment. For the most part, the ghost is in the mind of the beholder. It is there when one sleeps, as he takes out the trash, as she sits on the porch while eating dinner. A ghost can be overwhelming sadness, indefatigable guilt, the nagging question of what actually happened to a loved one who simply vanished one day. “The Deeper You Dig” might have limited budget, but its vision is unchained. I wished its third act were as strong as what came before.

“The Deeper You Dig” is a two-fold story and it is co-written and co-directed by John Adams and Toby Poser. They star in it, too. The first perspective is through the eyes of a mother named Ivy (Poser) who appears to have—or have had—some connection to the paranormal. She makes a living as a fortuneteller. Not three hours since her daughter Echo (Zelda Adams) went missing, Ivy already knows something has gone wrong. The second frame of reference is through the experiences of Ivy’s neighbor named Kurt (Adams). While driving home after a night of drinking, his truck hits Echo while she was night sledding. Instead of taking responsibility for the fourteen-year-old, Kurt decides to hide the body.

Notice the filmmakers’ level of control. Take away all of the overt elements—floating spirits, bodies dissipating in black smoke, and the like—and the picture becomes more potent. The reason is because the emotional crux—knowing versus not knowing—is tethered in realism. Misery is drawn all over Ivy’s face as she searches desperately for answers. Meanwhile, Kurt is constantly under torment; he looks like the walking dead because although his body sleeps, his head is wide awake. No matter the perspective we adopt, a feeling of foreboding doesn’t let up. Big budget horror films can learn a thing or two from this family project.

The story is not without creepy moments. For instance, Ivy’s job is initially played for laughs. There is an older woman who wishes to communicate with her deceased husband. She so badly wants to talk to him that eventually she decides to put an extra fifty bucks on the table in order to inspire the psychic to try a little harder in establishing communication with the dead. We snicker… until our smiles are wiped off almost immediately when a whisper is heard. It is Echo’s voice. But she’s not dead. Clearly, the picture’s idea of a ghost is different from what typically expect. The film offers its own rules and so we try to figure them out. We’re engaged.

One character wants to know, the other wishes to forget. This duality is curious and so events that transpire during the final twenty minutes is quite disappointing. We already know that Kurt and Ivy must clash eventually. But must it involve having to wrestle on the ground as they clamor for weapons? Because the rest of the work is elevated, surely the creative team could have found a way to end their piece in a manner that is equal to or worthy of their ambition. Regardless, because of its efforts and the chances it is willing to take, I am giving the picture a marginal recommendation.