Tag: horror

Spiral


Spiral (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

When Kurtis David Harder’s “Spiral” is at its best, it is reminiscent of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” From the moment same-sex couple Malik and Aaron (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, Ari Cohen), along with their teenage daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte), arrive in the unnamed small town, the paranoia in the air is palpable; it is too clean, too quiet, too suburban. This is a much-needed change of pace from what the trio is used to. Malik, a black man who remains traumatized from a hate crime he experienced when he was a teenager, suspects something is off. Soon a welcoming white neighbor comes to visit and claims, “Nothing ever changes around here.”

The minimalistic approach feels right in a movie like this. We get the usual events like a character waking up in the middle of the night due to a noise coming from downstairs (naturally, he is compelled to investigate), looking out one’s window and witnessing a bizarre sort of gathering (could a cult be afoot?), and penetrating looks from neighbors as a new face—a black face—jogs down the street. But when the picture gets specific—like when Malik comes home and discovers that someone had broken into their home and spray painted “FAGGOT” on the wall—this is when the work is most powerful—and immediate—because it is a specific attack. It is so personal and so hurtful that the N-word might as well have been spray painted, too. “People don’t change,” Malik tells Aaron, who is white, “They just get better at hiding [their hatred].”

But is there something sinister going on or is Malik simply hallucinating? Eventually, Malik begins to see ghostly figures (which I find to be lame attempts at jump scares). He even exhibits problems with processing time. Aaron believes everything is fine, that his partner is simply having trouble adjusting to their new life. (Aaron leaves for work early while Malik works at home as a ghostwriter. Perhaps Malik has been too cooped up in the house of increasing horrors.) Meanwhile, Kayla has found a friend (or maybe more) in Tyler (Ty Wood), a charming teenager who lives across the street with his parents, Marshal and Tiffany (Lochlyn Munro, Chandra West). The screenplay by Colin Minihan and John Poliquin takes far too long to provide a definitive answer—which comes with a cost.

The work’s exposition and rising action slap viewers into paying attention. And so it is critical that we are provided a climax that delivers—preferably one that surpasses expectations. We are given neither. The climax is creepy but expected and nothing special—a disappointment because there are numerous instances that point to the community’s fear of The Other. The Other, in this case, is a same-sex couple whereby half is a black man. The big reveal offers minimal flavor despite the meat of the film having marinated for so long. Why isn’t it more specific? It would have been a perfect opportunity to tap into the zeitgeist of the ‘90s when gay men were feared not only for their sexuality and lifestyles but also the possibility of them having AIDS.

Even events after the revelations come across rushed. There are ways to make viewers want to know more without the material being reduced to an incomplete story. It comes across as though the writers forgot that this is Malik’s story and so the denouement must be specific to him. We follow him, and so his desire becomes our desire; his needs, our needs. Malik’s trauma, sadness, and anger for having been a victim of hate crime in the ‘80s propel him to discover and, if possible, expose then uproot a potential nefarious plot. The picture goes for a haunting ending but it is not at all satisfying.

Re-Animator


Re-Animator (1985)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a movie that embraces H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “Herbert West—Re-Animator,” and injects it with wild enthusiasm. What results is a bloody, in-your-face, nearly genius horror-comedy so wildly entertaining, it is impossible to look at without being enraptured by the bizarre images: a cat in pieces still wiggling about, a headless neurosurgeon (yes, ironic), giant intestines seeming to have a mind of its own… It’s totally bonkers. But it’s a good movie, certainly worthy of a cult following, because director Stuart Gordon, who co-writes the screenplay with Dennis Paoli and William J. Norris, commits to the idea all the way to the finish line.

Herbert West is one of the most memorable mad scientists I’ve come across in the movies. He is played with gusto to spare by Jeffrey Combs. When Herbert enters a room it feels as though he sucks on all the air from it. He is so rigid, so stern, so unrelenting when it comes to achieving his vision of defeating death, you take one look at the medical student and you are convinced morality and ethics are of no importance to him. What matters is results, and he will get it. And so when he answers a roommate ad posted by Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), one of the most promising young physicians in Miskatonic University, it is expected that Dan’s future is sealed.

Love can be felt in every touch of makeup and special effects. Whether it be a rotting hand or eyeballs bulging out of their sockets and then exploding, the filmmakers consistently frame these images in such a way that they look disgusting and beautiful—you want to cringe at the sight of them yet at the same time want to study them closely. I was especially tickled by the more realistic effects like when the superstar scientist Dr. Hill (David Gale) gives a demonstration on how to extract a whole brain from a corpse. His students are unfazed—with the exception of Herbert who despises the man for being a plagiarist. The sight of Dr. Hill still being in science, and thriving, enrages Herbert. He must get on with his late-night experiments.

The picture is peppered with deadpan humor, from the way characters respond to the reality that, yes, the dead can be brought back to life (with certain… concessions) to how a head severed from its body is still able to control the body and perform rather complex tasks. The writers are correct in allowing the more improbable occurrences happen later on because by then we are engrossed by the story’s mental universe. We grow curious of what else the work has in store. And how left-field happenings can surprise us in delightful and horrific ways.

Filmmaker James Wan has claimed that horror are the best-made movies in terms of craft. This is highly applicable in “Re-Animator” because so many pieces must be controlled to create a believable and fun experience, not just in terms of blood—how much to use, when to use it, getting just the right consistency to be convincing, and how to make it look good as it spatters on the wall—but also when to use a real head versus a mannequin, how to best angle the camera so that a mechanical effect can look more natural, down to the appearance of the zombie serum so that it looks portentous and capable of standing out amidst the chaos.

Silent Place


Silent Place (2020)
★ / ★★★★

If your film is going to be a blatant rip-off of John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place,” you’d better have good ideas and a strong execution to back it up. “Silent Place,” written and directed by Scott Jeffrey, is unable to step outside of its inspiration’s shadow and so every minute feels like a drag, a cheap imitation, a wasted opportunity to take already existing ideas and push them to the next level or branch off them to make this particular story worth telling. The picture runs for about eighty minutes, but it feels twice as long.

Especially problematic are its moments of action. No, not sequences where our protagonists find themselves running desperately from a gray, rubbery-looking humanoid creature with sharp teeth but no eyes. I refer to moments when a person must get from one place to another, almost tiptoeing, while keeping noise to a minimum since the antagonist is especially sensitive to sound. These moments are filled with dead air—funny because the score is almost always booming. It feels the need to always push us to feel a certain way instead of relying on its images and circumstances to get our hearts to beat a little faster.

“A Quiet Place” does right what this movie does dead wrong. For instance, instead of the camera always focusing on the face, there are tension-filled moments when we are looking at the characters’ legs and feet. Since we might have an idea as to where or what they are about to step into (a toy that may alarm, a rope that triggers a trap that creates noise, and the like), suspense is created from seemingly simple movements. We hold our breaths due to anticipation. Here, we always focus on facial expressions—redundant because we already know the hunted are terrified. Changing the strategy from time to time goes a long way. Jeffrey’s film appears to be stuck with its usual bag of tricks. It gets real tiresome.

The plot involves a family of four (Ryan Davis, Stephanie Lodge, Georgina Jane, Jake Watkins) visiting the country because the mother’s father is sent to the hospital once again due to heart problems. Rita fears for her aging father’s decreasing quality of life and so she wishes to be there for her lonely mother who pretends to be strong in the face of uncertainty (Helen Minassian). I enjoyed the scenes in which the visiting family find themselves stuck in a rural community that is somehow seemingly abandoned. It is eerie that in the middle of the day, the picturesque town is dead silent. Not even birds can be heard chirping nearby despite the fact that there is an abundance of trees. What happened to this town? Naturally, the family members decide to split up to investigate. Cue the countdown to their discovery of blood spatters.

You may be thinking that the situational horror described sounds extremely generic. That’s because it is. The real question though is how is such an ordinary template executed? Are there enough details to make the situation specific to this story? Do characters respond to challenges in ways that are practical and intelligent? Are there surprising revelations along the way? Inspired scares? Neat special, visual, and practical effects? It is apparent that the film underachieves across these categories.

Most frustrating is when our protagonists learn that the monster uses sound to navigate, they fail to utilize this knowledge to gain the advantage. Instead, they make even more unnecessary noises. It’s enraging. The screenplay tends to rely on them gambling their lives instead of looking around first to see which object, or objects, they can use to deceive the creature. And get this: Not one of them bothers to go to the kitchen and grab a weapon. We can only take so much lack of common sense.

The poor quality of “Don’t Speak” has little to do with limited budget. The best horror flicks tend to have smart and resourceful characters. If we feel that the protagonists are really present and actively thinking of ways to extricate themselves out of tricky situations, excitement follows. But not here. We get the impression that people make it through the end not because they are most fit but because the plot requires a survivor (or survivors). It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

Howl


Howl (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

The British werewolf movie “Howl,” written by Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler, entertains in bits and pieces because it manages to capture the vibe of a dark and stormy night while passengers are stuck in a train that’s surrounded by dense forest. It delivers a few good scares, particularly when the camera remains still as a towering werewolf with glowing eyes approaches its victim and goes for the kill. However, it fails in providing both a satisfying conclusion and one that fits the story it is telling. One gets the impression that the writers have forgotten what the story is actually about outside of the grisly werewolf attacks.

We meet a train guard named Joe (Ed Speleers) who receives news that he did not get promoted to supervisor. Right away this character triggers curiosity: Joe seems to be upset based on his behavior, but the performer’s eyes’ give the impression that the promotion isn’t right for Joe anyway, that Joe is capable of so much more than being a guard. This intrigued me because majority of horror pictures are often one note; certainly contrasting elements, especially in terms of characterization, are not usually encountered less than ten minutes into the story. It shows promise. Perhaps it is not just another werewolf film.

As Joe checks passengers’ tickets, we note of the various personalities. On this level, the work offers little to no surprises, from the obnoxious teenager on her cellphone (Rosie Day), the uptight professional who’s having a bad day (Shauna Macdonald), to the nice elderly couple (Duncan Preston, Ania Marson) who we already know will be in danger once passengers are required to run from the hairy predator.

Other standouts include ladies man Adrian (Elliot Cowan), who is a jerk at times, and Billy (Sam Gittins), the silent tough guy who, like Joe, is underestimated by people like Adrian who seem to have forgotten how it’s like to be young and just starting out. There are three or four characters worth rooting for because we come to have an appreciation of their respective backgrounds and therefore the stakes should they fail to make it through the night. I enjoyed that there are some humor to be had with the more pointed personalities.

Lyncanthrope attacks are violent and gory. Whether characters are running out in the open or stuck in a restroom stall, there is horror to be experienced. I think it is because the approach to the scares is malleable. For instance, when outside the train, low growls and rustling leaves can be heard from a few feet away. It is mostly silent. There is suspense because sequences are quite drawn out. It is uncommon for blood to be front and center. However, when inside the train, the strategy is nearly the opposite. Gore is by the bucketloads. Yelling and screaming pummel the eardrums. Emphasis is on the stature and power of the werewolf: claw marks on metallic surfaces, people are thrown across the room with seeming else, hitting the werewolf’s body with a weapon is a gamble. I felt as though director Paul Hyett is indeed a fan of other werewolf movies, and it is his goal to make a good one.

It is disappointing that “Howl” does not end in a way that makes sense for the material. Perhaps the writers are going for a bleak and haunting ending—but this does not match the underlying message, particularly when looking at our central protagonist. Consider: Joe is a young man who, because of his job, does not get a lot of respect. When getting their tickets checked, half the passengers do not even bother to look him in the eye, let alone thank him. But through the trial of facing the werewolves, it becomes clear that Joe is more than his job. There is promise that he can take on his career of interest and excel at it. Thus, an ending with a hopeful or optimistic tone might have been more appropriate. The ending we are provided is predictable and generic.

Fantasy Island


Fantasy Island (2020)
★ / ★★★★

The premise of “Fantasy Island” promises limitless imagination: the tropical paradise possessing the ability to grant its guests’ deepest desires. It is even capable of bringing the dead back to life. But the movie is dull, repetitive, devoid of original ideas and so it relies on familiar tropes to create a semblance of suspense, and it feels closer to three hours than two. In the middle of it, I questioned whether the screenwriters (Jillian Jacobs, Christopher Roach, and Jeff Wadlow [who directs]) actually intended to make a good film. Clearly, there is more to making a movie work than simply slapping together a hodgepodge of ideas. The end result is convoluted dross.

There are a handful of familiar faces, from Michael Peña as the enigmatic keeper of the island, Maggie Q as a guest who wishes to get back together with an old flame, to Michael Rooker as a ragged onlooker who appears to know precisely what’s going on in the island. These three have appeared in better movies and delivered much stronger performances. Neither hyperbolic nor downplayed acting could save a screenplay that is dead on arrival.

Perhaps the most curious performers are Lucy Hale as a young woman who wishes to enact revenge on a high school bully and Portia Doubleday as the reformed tormentor. Hale’s Melanie is now the pretty girl and Doubleday’s Sloane is married but unhappy. Throughout their time on the island, their dynamics shift. There is potential in their storyline. But the movie is filled with so many characters—less interesting ones—that the duo never gets the arc they deserve. And so when the would-be surprising final act comes around, we meet it with a shrug rather than a heartfelt desire to know the specifics.

One important trait the picture lacks is intrigue. Nearly halfway through, we are taken to a place that explains the island’s source of power. This is simply the setup but the script treats it as the punchline. It is an alarming “So what?” moment. We wait and wait for an answer but it never comes. This lackadaisical and half-hearted approach bleeds into the guests’ fantasy. We learn about their wishes but the writers fail to turn information into genuine humanity. Why tell this story when we couldn’t care less for the VIPs running around the island? It should have been an easy task because, whether we care to admit or not, every one of us has something we wish to change about our pasts.

If the point of the feature is to exercise special and visual effects, it fails on that level too. Black water coming out of people’s eyes, a burned figure popping out of unlikely places, people falling off a cliff and splattering on the rocks below, even simple gunshots to the head look cheap and unconvincing. Aerial shots of the island look great… but it is so sunny, bright, and postcard-looking that we are forced to wonder which images are CGI and which are real (if any). From a visual perspective, the work never becomes an enveloping experience. It does not help that each fantasy appears to be set on a different part of the globe.

“Fantasy Island” made me wish I were sitting through a better movie. One that offers deep imagination, varying levels of mystery and terror, and characters worth following and rooting for. Notice its level of ordinariness, its lack of flavor. Fantasies and nightmares never break from being told in a linear fashion. Really think about it: When you dream, it is rarely this way. Images are never this tame, storylines are never this boring. When our mind works things out, sometimes it is nonsensical. This picture cannot help but to explain, especially when antagonists reveal their motivations. This movie is not about anything. It exists simply to rake in the cash by capitalizing on the Blumhouse brand—which is depressing.

The Pool


The Pool (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

It is curious that the situational horror “The Pool” opens by exercising its shoddy visual effects: a man (Theeradej Wongpuapan) at the bottom of a dried up swimming pool being hunted by a hungry crocodile. It is six meters deep; no ladder, no one else around to ask for help, no apparent means of escape. Nothing about the confrontation is believable, let alone terrifying, because it is obvious the actor is performing in front of a blue screen. But that’s what I enjoyed about it: It makes no pretense in regard to its limited budget. This first scene is a rebel yell that writer-director Ping Lumpraploeng plans to push his wild concept all the way through the finish line. However, it cannot be denied that the journey there is not always first-rate entertainment. Logic is thrown out the window one too many times in order to introduce more conflict rather than to amplify those already present, particularly when the man’s girlfriend (Ratnamon Ratchiratham) enters the equation. Tension could have been far more potent had this been a man versus nature story, not man and his girl. When not illogical, the screenplay goes for syrupy drama (cue the soap opera-like flashbacks), and eventually its anti-abortion stance gets in the way of straightforward storytelling. I felt that its edges are softened for the sake of stroking the more conservative viewers’ bubbles. The third act shows it is more than capable of treading darker territory and yet shies away last-minute. It chooses a happy ending over one that feels right for the material. By doing so, its power is lessened significantly.

Jeepers Creepers


Jeepers Creepers (2001)
★★★ / ★★★★

“You know the part in scary movies when somebody does something really stupid, and everybody hates them for it? This is it.”

Although Trish (Gina Philips) warns her brother Darry (Justin Long) not to climb down the jutting pipe that is sitting a few feet away from the entrance of an abandoned church, he remains convinced he heard a voice down there. The person, or persons, may be in dire need of help. After all, while driving along the countryside highway just minutes earlier, Trish and Darry witnessed a man throwing what appears to be two bodies down the pipe—covered in white sheets with red stains on them—the very same man who terrorized them on the road with his souped up old truck sporting the license plate BEATNGU. Up until this point in the film, creature-feature “Jeepers Creepers,” written and directed by Victor Salva, is wonderful entertainment, expertly balancing tension and laughs as audiences are played like a piano.

However, it is let down somewhat by a soggy middle portion and an uninspired final act. The latter is especially problematic given that the more people there are on screen, the material tends to rely on the usual tropes involving cops, guns, and monsters. They shoot at the thing yet the abomination doesn’t even recoil. Naturally, cops have poor aim. And they gawk when action is required. The third act is an exercise of futility, of effects, and of tired clichés which accomplish nothing other than to sideline Philips and Long’s terrific chemistry as siblings who squabble and tease but their love for one another cannot be denied.

When stripped all the way down, an argument can be made that this is a story of a brother and sister who must face change when they least expect it. It is no accident they are university students on their way home over break. There are a few examples that denote change. There is talk about their mother being unhappy in her marriage. Trish and Darry take the long way home because Trish has just gotten out of a relationship. And soon the duo must graduate and take on the “real world.” It is no coincidence that the villain they face resurfaces every 23 years, to kill and feed. 23 is when young adults usually begin their lives and careers outside of university.

When the film focuses on Trish and Darry’s experiences out in that lonely country road, it works. Even a desperate visit to a diner has a darkly comic tinge to it. Clearly agitated and horrified, the locals simply stare at them rather than offering to help. Even the cops do not believe what Darry claims to have seen down that pipe. This supports the idea of the siblings having to face a challenge together, everyone else is decoration. But then the work begins to unspool.

I liked the look of The Creeper (Jonathan Breck), with its dark and leathery skin, sharp and stained teeth, its intimidating stature. Although it’s quite tall, it moves like a dancer. It makes sense that it is fit considering it is a hunter. Less intriguing is its apparent lack of weakness. It gets shot (pistols, shotgun). It is run over by a vehicle more than three times. It seems invincible, unstoppable. Eventually it lays dying in the middle of the highway but there is no drama because we know all too well it will get up again.

The idea of an insurmountable enemy can work, especially when it is supposed to symbolize or function as metaphor for something else, but it requires a sharp and deeply intelligent writing. However, since the screenplay is only interested in superficial thrills starting with the middle potion, the monster that won’t die feels more like a caricature rather than a truly formidable force. Notice how we tend to learn about it through secondhand tales rather than simply showing us.

Stay Out Stay Alive


Stay Out Stay Alive (2019)
★ / ★★★★

“Stay Out Stay Alive,” written and directed by Dean Yurke, attempts to be a morality tale of greed, but once all the pieces are in place to get its rather standard and uninspired messages across, the work gets mired in one horror cliché after another: screaming at walkie talkies, falling over while on the run in a forest, shadowy figures blending in the background, personal revelations meant to inspire sympathy. It’s all so tired. From the moment the characters find themselves stuck in a hole filled with gold, the picture goes nowhere. With a running time of just above an hour and twenty minutes, it feels much closer to two hours.

The only time the picture comes alive is when Barbara Crampton is on screen. She plays Ranger Susanna who wishes to find the five college campers (Brie Mattson, Brandon Wardle, Christina July Kim, Sage Mears, William Romano-Pugh) and warn them about an upcoming storm. Ranger Susanna may be in the film for a total of ten minutes, but she is curious because she possesses story in her eyes. When she looks at somebody, we wish to know what she’s thinking. Her experience as a ranger comes through, and so does her respect for the land with a tragic history.

When Amy (Kim) and her friends stumble upon the nineteenth century goldmine that Donna (Mears) has fallen into, questionable—at times downright nonsensical—behavior begins to pile up. An example: Donna’s foot becomes lodged in a rock, but she, along with the others except for Amy, insists that no help be summoned due to the fact that there is gold to be excavated in the mine. There is not one person who brings up the idea that they can simply return to the site once Donna has been rescued. This lack of common sense serves the plot, you see. And we must endure it.

But I say we deserve better, especially in situational horror movies like this one. An argument can be made that if characters are written smart and they prove to be resourceful yet still fail to extract themselves from an increasingly sticky situation, that is far scarier—certainly more engaging—than a movie that plays itself dumb and thus expects the viewer to be on that level. Its self-imposed limitations have nothing to do with the small budget. It is all about the imagination of the screenplay and how that is translated on screen.

The hammy acting is the least of the picture’s problems. In fact, I didn’t mind it. In a movie so devoid of creativity, at least the performers try to make something out of near nothing. Other than the scene-stealing Crampton, I quite enjoyed Wardle as the boyfriend whose greed gives the impression as though he has been possessed by evil down there in the mines. While the performance is not special by any means, at least the character doesn’t dissolve into the background like the mousy Kyle (Romano-Pugh) and the naive Bridget (Mattson).

I wished we were given more images of the redwood forest—as it is without the unimpressive visual effects like gusts of wind, spirits roaming about, various tremors—and the contents of the diary that’s been sitting in the mine for several decades. When it lets our minds fill in the gaps of the story’s mythology, a whiff of a superior movie can be detected. But alas.

Satan’s Slaves


Satan’s Slaves (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Joko Anwar’s “Satan’s Slaves” plays upon haunted house tropes that plague horror movies in the west. It’s a mixed bag because the setup possesses details specific to Indonesian culture, but the punchline is familiar and tired some of the time. Cue shadowy figures coming out of their hiding spaces in the middle of a rainy night. I found this aspect of the picture to be uninspired at best and downright boring when pieces are awkwardly put together. This is not the ideal showcase of the writer-director’s talent.

The first half of the picture intrigues. We meet the family of six and learn plenty in regards to their dynamics as a unit. The matriarch (Ayu Laksmi), once a successful singer, has been ill for years. She is bedridden, her skin suffers from severe discoloration, and she is unable to speak. When she needs help, she summons using a bell. Those familiar with horror films will recognize almost immediately that the bell will become a source for scares. While these expected sequences do not break any ground, they do the job. I craved for more creativity.

The patriarch (Bront Palarae) must deal with not only mounting medical bills but also his children’s needs. I wished this character were developed more. After all, he and his wife share a history. It is strange that we never learn anything specific, surprising, or peculiar about their relationship. Thus, when mother is dying and father is right beside her, it feels like a portrait of two longtime roommates rather than of husband and wife. Father being off-screen for the majority of the time due to having work in the city, which is hours away, does not alleviate the lack of connection between he and his spouse as well as he and the children.

Rini (Tara Basro), the eldest, tries to provide around the house—from emotional support to making meals—while Tony (Endy Arfian), the second eldest, attempts to help financially by selling objects he values (his motorcycle, jewelry). Meanwhile, Bondi (Nasar Annuz) and Ian (M. Adhiyat) are absolutely terrified of mother; not once do we see them interact with her. We do, however, observe them at play. They’re cute and tender toward one another. The screenplay provides enough detail for each offspring and so we believe right away that they’ve lived under the same roof their entire lives. Quickly establishing their bond is critical because the conflict relies on challenging that bond. The writer-director proves to be up to the task.

The usual scares can be effective at times because the work is willing to take on arrhythmic beats between setup and punchline. Perhaps most effective are the haunts involving the two youngest. Ian is unable to speak so we anticipate him facing evil when he’s alone in a room (preferably when every else is sound asleep). But effective, for instance, is the small moments that occur once his instinct forces him to go on the run after recognizing he is not alone. Notice how the work takes its time. No one comes to his rescue right away—a trait uncommon to horror films in the west. In American movies, for instance, it is considered to be too cruel to allow a child character to be terrified for a prolonged period of time. Not here.

Meanwhile, Bondi looks on at the graveyard… which is only several yards away from their house. He is petrified of the idea of the dead rising from their graves. I found it interesting that Bondi gets only one or two in-your-face supernatural encounters. Most of his scares depend on imagining or anticipating that something might happen.

I found the third act to be messy and poorly executed. There are far too many characters running around and things pop out left and right. Naturally, there are convenient saves. I found no excitement, thrills, or scares from such drawn-out sequences, just busywork and loud noises. Clearly, Anwar’s strength is playing it small and personal. Minimal special and visual effects. Going for the jugular when we least expect it.

Bloodline


Bloodline (2018)
★ / ★★★★

First-time director Henry Jacobson wishes to tell a story about a monster hiding in plain sight in “Bloodline,” a psychological thriller so devoid of suspense, creativity, and drama that to say it is a Great Value version of the television series “Dexter” would be an insult to the brand—because the brand is meant to save us money while the film wastes our time. Nearly every second of its ninety-five minute running time feels like pulling teeth because no tension is accumulated; we are simply meant to sit through a series of would-be shocking events which almost always end up with a victim getting his or her throat sliced open. Cue the blood spatter on the killer’s face.

In the middle of it, I wondered if Seann William Scott actually read the screenplay before signing on for the project. He must have because it is obviously an independent film with limited budget—not at all a multimillion-dollar franchise in which an actor gets paid the big bucks. Did he owe someone a favor? Was he threatened to do the picture? Is this a two-part deal? In any case, his talent is wasted here. His character, a high school counselor who has a new baby at home, is not written with searing insight, great depth, and surprising details—strange because the intention of the work is for us to look at Mr. Cole and recognize eventually he is a portrait of evil. It is not enough to show him killing people that he thinks deserve to be punished; we must have an understanding of what makes a complex subject tick. What is/are his moral code(s)? Does he have any? Whatever the case, what makes this character worth looking into?

Mr. Cole’s penchant for killing stems from a traumatizing childhood event. (Aren’t they all?) These flashbacks lack control in terms of editing and how it is shot. They are presented to us randomly, perhaps when the subject becomes so stressed in his home life and/or while at work. The intention, I guess, is to show that he has such a flimsy grasp on reality that his mind must reach back into the past in order to cope. It is most unconvincing because the material also suggests that Mr. Cole is addicted to killing. It cannot be both because these are two different needs. There is a lack of both consistency and a basic understanding of abnormal psychology in Avra Fox-Lerne, Henry Jacobson, and Will Honley’s screenplay.

Strong debut pictures are usually propelled by great energy. At times first-time filmmakers wish to throw everything but the kitchen sink into their project—just in case they will not have another opportunity to make a second movie. In “Bloodline,” it is almost the exact opposite. There is no sense of desperation here channeled into something positive. It is lifeless, dour, and nearly every element feels constricted. Listen to the dialogue, for instance. It sounds like actors are reading from the script instead of simply being. Look at how scenes are shot indoors versus outdoors—there is little difference. It is no wonder the work is flat in look and feeling.

Even the relationship between husband and wife (Mariela Garriga) is most unconvincing. We are supposed to notice a difference in how their lifestyle changes as a couple once the adorable baby arrives—when it is not painfully apparent the performers are carrying or interacting with a doll—but there is nothing to sink our teeth into because minimal context is provided when it comes to how their lives are like before parenthood. It does not help that Scott and Garriga share no chemistry. When they are in bed together, it feels like a bad joke. We wait for the punchline.

The Cured


The Cured (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

Impetigore


Impetigore (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evil Dead


Evil Dead (2013)
★ / ★★★★

“I’ve had enough of this shit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bone Box


The Bone Box (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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