★★★ / ★★★★
Like strong creature features of the 1980s, “Crawl,” based on the screenplay by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, strips away the fat and dares to focus on the survival aspect of the story. But in order to increase the ante, there is no creature that had undergone genetic mutation or a bizarre alien being that crash landed on our planet. Instead, it takes a realistic approach: a father and his daughter find themselves trapped in their Florida home during a Category 5 hurricane—alligators just so happen to be on the hunt for food. In a way, the alligators are simply trying to survive, too. The movie is fun, full of energy, and as it moves forward, I caught myself pulling my limbs toward my torso. Cue the alligator’s jaws snapping shut around a character’s arm.
It is exciting visually. While the storm does not look particularly impressive or expensive, the increasingly terrifying flood does. There are numerous before-and-after shots. For instance, in the beginning of the film, we get a chance to observe the water levels around town as our heroine makes her way through evacuated roads to check up on her father. Then we spend the majority of the picture under a house as our characters evade the hungry reptiles.
Later, when we lay eyes on the outside again, it is shocking how trees are now bent a certain way, cars are floating about, the wind at least twice as strong, and the water can be seen as far as the eye can see. Because there is attention to detail, we believe that there really is a hurricane ripping through the state. Just as quickly, our minds drift toward Haley (Kaya Scodelario) and Dave (Barry Pepper) who are increasingly tired, injured, and bloody. Alligators prove to be most patient hunters.
There is human drama in the middle of this survival feature, but it is the correct decision to minimize it. Flashbacks are utilized to show how close Haley was to her father when she was a child. He was her coach and mentor. Haley is angry at her father but we do not know why initially. We do know, however, that Haley is unhappy right from the opening sequence during swim practice. She is the kind of person who has been trained to hide or mask her emotions. Did Dave push her too hard? Was there a traumatizing event? Is it something else entirely? The story can be seen then from the perspective of a familial anger that must exorcised through great violence in order for the relationship to move forward. Credit to the Rasmussen brothers for their efficiency.
The true stars of the picture are the alligators. Director Alexandre Aja has a knack for showing how beautiful these creatures are… then perverting that beauty into terrifying encounters. Underwater shots clearly serving to admire their sheer size and majesty are examples of the former. Latter examples are the gator attacks on land: how fast, smart, and powerful they are even when they are not in water. Most enjoyable is the fact that the filmmakers are willing to show how an alligator attempts to overwhelm its prey: how it uses its tail, its jaws, its own body weight, even its own surroundings. Each confrontation is different and that makes it exciting.
“Crawl” will tickle those who like their creature features short and sweet… but also dirty and bloody. Whether a chase sequence unfolds indoors or outdoors, it has a wonderful habit of placing the viewers close to the center of action for maximum impact. Every splashing of the water counts. Even tiny bubbles can be detected by these ferocious gators. It inspires us to clean closer yet remain guarded just in case there is a jump scare. In the middle of it, I wished more modern survival horror-thrillers were as lean and efficient as this experience.
Child’s Play (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★
Those looking for a creepy good time need not look further because this re-imagining of the 1988 horror classic “Child’s Play” is not just another slasher flick revived for the sole purpose of cashing in. In fact, right from the opening sequence it is proud to separate itself from the original by posing a technological question rather than an occult variety. In the 1988 picture, a doll is possessed by the soul of serial murderer; here, however, it is advanced technology gone horribly wrong, initiated by a mistreated factory worker in Vietnam. Yet it is not without dark but laugh-out-loud comic moments even when stabbings and slashing pervade the screen. I had a ball.
The plot is irrelevant: a tween-age boy named Andy (Gabriel Bateman) receives an early birthday present, a Buddi doll named Chucky (voiced by Mark Hamill), from his hardworking mother, Karen (Aubrey Plaza), during a difficult transitional period of their most recent move. Andy, who is deaf, is having trouble making new friends. The screenwriter, Tyler Burton Smith, is smart to establish a relatively fast-paced exposition because it is entirely familiar. He knows that most of us are in it for the violence and the blood first and story second; at the same time, however, he is aware that the most effective horror movies must build up to bursts of violence rather than simply parading around one killing after another. It helps that Plaza and Bateman share genuine chemistry, some of their exchanges as mother and son are cute and amusing.
I am most uncertain about Chucky’s design, specifically its face. I was not scared or creeped out when, for instance, the camera fixates on the doll when a person is not around. (I was disturbed by the doll’s actions more than anything.) Perhaps it is due to the fact that it does not look like a doll that is sold in stores. It looks more like a prop. What makes the original so chilling at times is that Chucky, when sitting still and not emoting, looks like any other doll. (Followed by that killer score.) Furthermore, although this version of Chucky has a lot more expressions than its predecessors, the facial movements look too artificial or computerized at times. There is something about more ordinary-looking puppets that are far more frightening despite their innate limitations.
I enjoyed that the work bothers to show human relationships, whether it be the mother and son or the boy attempting to make new friends in the building. The neighbor (Carlease Burke) and her detective son (Brian Tyree Henry) are given a chance to shine, too. But what I think is far superior than any “Child’s Play” movies that came before is the relationship between the doll and its owner. Here, there is a short but sweet montage where Andy and Chucky are actually shown playing, laughing, getting along. We observe Chucky learning and then applying what he learned in inappropriate situations. It is so important, I think, for the work to communicate the bond between a boy and his inanimate friend first and then later smashing that connection into smithereens.
Directed by Lars Klevberg, I felt a wonderful energy from this model of “Child’s Play.” I felt it is free and full of life, not at all shackled by the past—that it is having fun with itself. This is how re-imaginings should be like. It is likely that newcomers to the series will enjoy this. For longtime fans, like myself, the work offers rewards like characters holding up certain household items or tools that previous Chucky movies had a good time with. While the gore is gratuitous at times, there is a story here worth looking into. I liked that, for example, it touches upon the defectiveness of the doll (it was returned by its original owner) and Andy’s feelings of insecurity precisely because he is deaf. I sense that a stronger sequel is in store for us should the same writer and director be given another chance and their willingness to entertain remain.
Silence, The (2019)
★★ / ★★★★
As one sits through the increasingly disappointing creature feature “The Silence,” one begins to wonder why the filmmakers felt the need to tell this particular story after the outstanding “A Quiet Place” has got everyone talking. The plot is familiar: A family attempts to survive in a world overrun by monsters that are sensitive to sound. A big difference, however, is in the effectiveness of execution. John Krasinski’s picture is told with great focus and alacrity while John R. Leonetti’s work does not appear to know where to go. And given if it did, it possesses minimal conviction.
At least the creatures are somewhat interesting from a visual standpoint. At first glance, they appear to look and sound like bats, particularly when they are discovered in a cave that has been hidden for quite possibly thousands of years. Upon closer inspection, they are orange-yellow, about the size of an eagle but featherless. They have sharp teeth and hunt in groups. As expected for having lived in the dark for so long, they have no eyes. We are shown webpages and newsreels about how they are quite similar to wasps. They look menacing indeed and the screenwriters find ways for the characters to trigger loud noises—even if it means making them seem as though they have minimal survival instinct. The violence of the attacks are occasionally, and appropriately, horrific. These creatures eat their meal to the bone.
But one of the elements that separates solid monster movies from merely passable ones is from which perspective the audience experiences the story. The Andrews family is, for the most part, a bore. Stanley Tucci and Miranda Otto play the vanilla parents; Kate Trotter as the grandmother who hides her lung cancer from the children; and Kiernan Shipka and Kyle Harrison Breitkopf as the elder sister and younger brother who emote a whole lot. Shipka as Ally is supposed to be the central protagonist but we only know this because she is given narration and no one else.
She tells us about having recently gone deaf due to an auto accident. We see her being bullied by some boys at school. Clearly, these situations are introduced in order to win our sympathy. Do not be fooled. Look closely. Notice she is not given anything special or memorable to do—an opportunity to show why she is our heroine in this story. Contrast this with the Regan character in “A Quiet Place” (she is also deaf). It is abundantly clear which of the two is the more compelling figure. Which one would you rather have on your side during a time of crisis?
A group of characters are introduced late into the film. Their tongues are cut off and so they do not utter a word. They are creepy, how they are dressed in black or brown clothing. The leader focuses on Ally. It is thematically inappropriate to introduce human villains so late into the story and then disposing of them just as quickly in a most uninspired way. I felt as though they are used only to extend a film already running on fumes.
Although many might argue that the real enemy are the ancient creatures, I claim it is more about our limitations to adapt quickly and efficiently in life or death situations, especially when loved ones are involved. The enemy is our lack of understanding of, or the lack of willingness to understand, what is initially unknown. But the screenplay by Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke are not interested in the more curious philosophical musings. I wager they themselves do not know what makes their story special and worth telling.
Prodigy, The (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★
There are a dime a dozen horror pictures that leave such a terrible first impression, they never recover. Right from the opening shot involving a creepy-looking door and jump scare, I knew immediately where it was heading: a kidnapped woman (Brittany Allen) goes sprinting through the woods and onto the highway. A driver, enjoying a peaceful night drive on the road, makes a sudden movement to swerve in order to avoid hitting the anguished woman. There is pause and silence. The camera moves slowly toward the passenger window. It is so predictable, we know the exact point on the frame from which the escaped victim would appear suddenly. Cue the booming score. I rolled my eyes; I braced myself for a likely torturous ninety minutes. Then it proved me wrong.
Those looking for creepy children horror movies will get exactly what they expect from “The Prodigy,” written by Jeff Buhler and directed by Nicholas McCarthy, and then some. I refuse to reveal the precise machinations of the plot, but trust when I say that the material takes a concept and simply goes for it—not half-heartedly but all the way. Some viewers may scoff at it, especially since some developments are so ludicrous, but those who are open for a suspenseful and thrilling ride are certain to notice the steady rising action, that each turn of event is becoming increasingly unsettling. Eventually, we begin to detect a hopeless feeling because the challenge involving the boy comes across as seemingly insurmountable.
The boy is named Miles and he is played with great energy by Jackson Robert Scott. The young actor impresses not because he must deliver two performances but because of the way he tends to muddle the line between good Miles and bad Miles. No, the film is not a simply an extreme case of bipolar disorder or dissociative identity disorder. It is much worse, if you can believe it. Scott’s performance, to my surprise, matches that of Taylor Schilling, who plays the mother, the latter on the verge of breakdown due to the nightmare that has taken hold of her once happy home. It is required, for the sake of believability, that the two performances function on a similar level.
The titular character is highly intelligent and an exceptional liar. Tension accumulates because there is always the possibility that Miles is already two steps ahead of his parents (the father played by Peter Mooney) who realize they do not feel safe in their own house. When Sarah and John whisper in the middle of the night, for example, we squint at the carefully framed shadows. Could Miles be lurking there? The director is wise to employ numerous wide shots in order to arouse suspicion among the environment. We already know how terrified the parents are and so focusing on close-ups would have taken away from the rising action. I enjoyed, too, that there are moments when Miles does not have an inkling that his parents might be up to something. By changing it up once in a while, it keeps us on our toes.
“The Prodigy” surprises, too, when it comes to its level of brutality. There are implied violence… and then there are those that are so in-your-face, I caught myself looking away suddenly due to a mix of horror and utter shock that certain images are actually, daringly, shown. And yet it does not come across as gratuitous, you see. The reason is because the filmmakers actually care about telling a particular story first and foremost. The inevitable violence is a byproduct.
Hansel and Gretel (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
Eun-Soo (Jeong-myeong Cheon) was on his way to visit his mother in critical condition when he receives a phone call from his pregnant girlfriend. The conversation does not go so well and just when he hangs up, he sees something in the middle of the road and swerves to avoid it. The highway is quite windy so the car ends up across the rail and onto a forested area.
Unconscious for what it seems like a couple of hours, he is found by a girl named Jung-soon (Ji-hee Jin) who takes him to her home and introduces him to the rest of her family. They are nice enough to let Eun-Soo stay overnight, but when he tries to find the highway the next day, he ends up back at the house. The looks on their faces suggest that they expected this would happen. Eun-Soo looks for another way out to no avail.
Based on the screenplay by Pil-Sung Yim and Min-sook Kim, “Henjel gwa Geuretel” is composed of many creepy elements from the dark fairly tale and is able to deliver the necessarily visuals designed to establish an off-kilter, isolated world located in the heart of from what it seems to be a magical forest. However, its interesting story is so often dampened by over-the-top sentimentality that it comes off manipulative.
The scenes shot indoors are so catching, I felt like I was right there with the characters as they sport fake smiles in order to hide the fact that something sinister is hiding behind the sugary confections and cute portraits of rabbits on walls. It is typical that each room is well-lit so we can appreciate the flood of colors that manage to complement one another. The camera is quick to focus on specific decorations that appear cute or harmless the moment we glance upon them. But the longer we look, there is a darkness and uneasiness emitted from the objects which reflect how we end up feeling toward the three children (the other siblings played by Eun Won-jae and Ji-hee Hin, both wonderful in providing piercing glares).
Eun-Soo’s early attempts to find a way out are interesting. By about the fourth time, however, it begins to feel repetitive. The problem is that we have been convinced that he is not going to find a way out until he decides to ask the necessary questions. It is most frustrating when the character is much slower than us to pick up on rather prominent clues. Worse, he does not seem to have a plan on how to outsmart the children in question. Halfway through, I began to lose interest because the level of menace has waned somewhat and the pacing has slowed down considerably. While Eun-Soo remains to encounter strange happenings, there is a lack of urgency to them.
The picture’s daze is broken when a flashback involving the children takes center stage. Finally we get to understand how they end up being so clingy to their guests. The explanation is superficial but at least one is offered. However, it does not save the material from the eventual waterworks toward the end. Instead of being in the moment, I started to wonder whether the tears flowing down the performers’ faces were real. The crying feels like a desperate tactic to create a semblance of sadness when it should have trusted us to interpret our own feelings.
“Hansel & Gretel,” directed by Pil-Sung Yim, is successful is setting up a portentous mood but there is not much else to it. Without its wonderful art direction and set design, it emits little magic because the screenplay does not offer enough excitement outside the usual horror pitfalls. Of course Eun-Soo will go up to the attic after hearing thudding noises from above. Naturally, we brace ourselves for the eventual sudden appearance of something hiding in the dark.
★ / ★★★★
Although “Malevolent” is based on the novel “Hush” by Eva Konstantopoulos, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ben Ketai, it does not feel like one because there is a lack of mythos behind the story being told. Instead, it is more in line with badly conceived and even more poorly executed horror films in which paranormal investigators are paid to investigate dark basements, bedrooms, and other creepy areas with a certain horrific past. Naturally, from time to time we observe the action through a grainy or shaky camera. Its tricks become old quite quickly and it tests the patience.
Its premise is promising because the so-called ghostbusters are simply university students who swindle desperate people, often bereaved, for extra cash. The team (Scott Chambers, Georgina Bevan) is led by Jackson (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) who is hinted to have drug problems and owing thugs some cash and so he seizes every potential job despite the fact that his sister, Angela (Florence Pugh), simply wishes for them to have a fresh start in Scotland. (The siblings are Americans.) Unbeknownst to Jackson, Angela has recently developed powers that enable her to see the dead. This is a great runway to lift off from—but the screenplay fails to do anything interesting with the usual machinations of horror films.
From 2000 to 2006, there was a television show called “Scariest Places on Earth” in which a documentary crew visited locations across North America and Europe where paranormal phenomena had been reported. Clearly fake in retrospect, it captured my imagination at the time because it bothered to detail the history of each place. Each episode worked to establish a thick atmosphere of mystery and, eventually, terror. We even learn about some of the equipments employed that allowed us to hear ghostly voices or see shadows that human eyes are unable to see. Take any episode from this show and it would be better than this film. At least each one was only about forty-five minutes. On the other hand, this picture is twice the length and significantly less entertaining.
Spanish and Mexican filmmakers have such talent in changing the gears halfway through—or two-thirds of the way through—by introducing convincing twists and turns. While this film attempts to surprise the audience by moving toward slasher territory during the final thirty minutes, it does not work at all. The reason is because the majority of the work is dedicated to silly jump scares as we follow Angela down dark hallways. There is no story—no meat—to bite into that could then lead to a believable pivot that makes sense to the plot. In other words, the change in tone is superficial and unbelievable. It comes across as a gimmick.
“Malevolent” is low on scares and even lower on imagination. The latter, I think, is the key to telling effective ghost stories. The funny thing about horror films is that they don’t need to be scary as long as they are well-told. It must engage us intellectually and emotionally. Doing so allows us to forget how stupid it is to go down a dark basement after hearing raspy whispers. The best of the genre makes us to want to explore that basement in morbid anticipation.
Devil’s Doorway, The (2018)
★ / ★★★★
Here is yet another found footage picture in which the filmmakers feel the need to shake the camera so relentlessly during the climax, it is near impossible to tell what’s going on. Couple this with a resolution that makes no sense whatsoever, the viewer is certain to enter a world of great frustration. Had the screenwriters—Martin Brennan, Aislinn Clarke, and Michael B. Jackson—been more astute, or have the slightest awareness, that their material actually has the potential to unspool at least a mildly intriguing story, despite the numerous clichés, they would have made the choice to do away with the found footage gimmick and tell the tale in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner.
Instead, what results is a forgettable horror film that lacks human drama, especially when it is set in a time and place (1960 Ireland) in which there was a lot of conflict and anger. Father Thomas (Lalor Roddy) and Father John (Ciaran Flynn) are sent to investigate a claim in a Magdalene asylum—to determine whether a statue of the Virgin Mary that weeps blood is in fact a miracle.
The former is convinced it is but convincing trickery, but the latter is willing—too willing—to embrace the phenomenon as supernatural. The clash between the two ideals is ripe for the picking, but the material appears to be more interested in providing cheap jolts rather than exploring the difference between the veteran and the tyro soldier of the Lord. It is likely that under a more standard narrative, the differences between the two men may have had a chance to be put under a more dramatic magnifying glass.
As for the scares it attempts to deliver, only one or two are inspired. Less intriguing are the ostentatious displays of the supernatural—body parts suddenly aflame, a pregnant woman (Lauren Coe)—suspected of being possessed by a demon or Satan himself—suddenly levitating from the bed, and eyeballs rolling in the back of one’s head. The special and visual effects look and feel cheap. They probably are. It is an excellent example of wanting to appease the modern viewer even though these flashy displays do nothing but hinder the film.
Its strength lies in the more subtle but exponentially horrifying moments. For instance, observe the scene in which the camera is simply placed right next to the pregnant woman’s face as a nun digs into her to acquire the infant. Because the camera is fixated on the subject’s face, the tearing of the flesh, the scraping of metallic utensils, and seeing the blood-soaked sheets in the background leave plenty to the imagination. Even though this woman is seemingly possessed by evil, in this scene, we relate to her anyway. Because during this moment, she is a woman first and a victim of demonic possession second. This is the level in which the movie should be functioning at all times.
One of its theses is good or evil coming from places or people one may not suspect. (Another is the Catholic Church’s hypocrisy.) Had the writers been more focused on what type of story they wish to tell—and how—they would have strived to make every moment count. Instead, for a movie with a running time of about seventy-five minutes, nearly half of it is senseless filler. One could go to the restroom for ten minutes and not miss a critical plot development. In place of realism, “The Devil’s Doorway,” directed by Aislinn Clarke, offers a lot of noisy decoration.
Curse of La Llorona, The (2019)
★ / ★★★★
For a supernatural entity specific to Mexican folklore, it is astounding that “The Curse of La Llorona,” written by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, is decidedly content in delivering vanilla jump scares that can be found in other equally generic and exhausting modern horror pictures. It is an excellent example of how difficult it is to pen a genuinely scary or creepy story; take away the sudden deafening noises, shrill screaming, and over utilized CGI, all there is left is desert-dry boredom in which characters run around without much purpose. It is insulting and a waste of time.
We are asked to relate with a family whose patriarch, a cop, had recently died in the line of duty. Clearly still mourning the loss of her partner, Anna (Linda Cardellini) holds the fort by ensuring that her children, Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), continue a life normalcy. This deep sadness in the family ought to have been the very element that connects us to the material emotionally, but it proves uninterested in establishing a convincing human drama first. It is interested only in providing jump scares—which would not have been a problem had there been a higher level of craft or effort put behind each one. Instead, it is formulaic. Each beat offers no surprise. When the camera pans around the corner, it is easy to guess whether the scene is setting up a false alarm or yet another assault to the eardrums.
The appearance of The Weeping Woman is neither memorable nor scary. She has black hair, dressed in a white gown, and is well-known for drowning her two children after she learns that her husband left her for a younger woman. Her face, so computerized that it is laughable more than menacing, is shown on glass and mirrors, at times drenched in shadows. Nearly each time she is shown, I caught myself flinching at how awful her face looks, quality-wise. Would it have been too much of a bother to create a scary appearance using only cosmetics? The irony is that although the ghost is supposed to be dead, putting some life or tactile quality about the face would have made this figure more terrifying. I found her look to be as lazy and uninspired as the screenplay.
Its numerous attempts at injecting humor most often lead to a deafening thud. There is a character introduced more than halfway through the film, a former priest (Raymond Cruz), who agrees to help free Anna and her children from La Llorona’s terror. The would-be jokes are so out of left field that they take away tension rather than amplifying them. Laughter should turn into gasps of horror, or vice-versa, but in this case, it is simply cringe-inducing. Once again, the writing is at fault. It does not bother to establish that Rafael has a playful personality. So when he cracks jokes involving eggs, for instance, it is simply awkward. At times we feel as though such scenarios do not belong in the film.
“The Curse of La Llorona” is directed by Michael Chaves, but I wondered if he did so while half-asleep. Filmmakers in control of their first feature usually exude a level of enthusiasm so effervescent, so over-the-top, their fervor floods the picture, for better or worse. Here, I felt as though he was not passionate or did not care at all about the project. There is not one unique shot, not even one genuinely terrifying scene that is worthy of being labeled horror.
Little Stranger, The (2018)
★ / ★★★★
This is not a movie but a dirge. Based on the novel of the same name by Sarah Walters, “The Little Stranger” relies on mood and atmosphere to create a dramatic horror film, but substance is nowhere to be found. It is proof that simply parading around sad-looking faces, increasingly dilapidated eighteenth century estate, curious accidents and deaths, along with a melancholy score does not magically conjure up interest. What results is a film that works as an effective sleeping pill even for the worst insomniacs.
I get what it is trying to do. The filmmakers wish to tell a story of a man so desperate to escape his class, one that he is deeply ashamed of, that his presence around the once marvelous and enviable Hundreds Estate triggers a possible supernatural phenomenon. Dr. Faraday’s deep yearning—ever since he was a boy—of wanting to belong in the estate, to own it, inspires the house itself to get rid of its current inhabitants (Charlotte Rampling, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter) by driving them to madness. The story is a metaphor for self-fulfilling prophecies, of childhood dreams and traumas, of insatiable desire for upward mobility. There should have been heft to the material.
It might have worked as a novel because written pages allow for internal monologues. However, translating the original material onto film is a monumental task for a tale like this. Because there is no narration designed to communicate a range of unexpressed thoughts and emotions, it must find or create a source of urgency in order to capture the attention and imagination of the viewer. Instead, we are given one soporific dialogue after another; notice that every other scene is meant to explain the overarching metaphor and so the material does not get a chance to truly take off. I got the impression that Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay does not fully trust the audience to understand the type of story being told and why. And so, due to its constant need to elucidate, boredom is created.
The commoner with a medical degree is played by Domhnall Gleeson. In the middle of it, I began to feel sorry for his efforts. Clearly most comfortable in dramatic roles, notice how he milks the seconds whenever the camera rests on his face. Dr. Faraday need not say a word because we feel him—by carefully observing his face and body language—wrestling with the potentiality that he may in fact be responsible with the recent misfortunes of the Ayres household. He is a man of science but science fails to explain the increasingly bizarre events. In other words, Gleeson’s performance attempts to elevate the material, but the work is so thin that lifting a dead horse proves futile.
Director Lenny Abrahamson is correct in not showing ghosts, poltergeists, or apparitions outright. Instead, he employs flashbacks and photographs to underline the fact that people have come and gone in the Hundreds estate. Their memories are the ghosts; maybe they can even see the living through their well-framed photographs. Despite its restraint from showing the literal, there is not enough urgency that propels the drama. For instance, the current residents lack the required character details so that when one of them gets taken out of the equation, we feel his or her absence. Ironically, this is comparable to extremely obvious slasher flicks in which we end up not caring about the characters dropping like flies.
Dark Song, A (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
Compile the usual images of black magic rituals often encountered in horror movies and throw them out the window. “A Dark Song,” written and directed by Liam Gavin, provides an alternative: a ritual that takes place over days, possibly weeks, but one that leaves the possibility that, despite the ritual having been performed, nothing has come out of it. Viewers expecting tried-and-true scares are likely to be disappointed, but those looking for magical realism will certainly find at least one admirable quality about the project.
The plot is seemingly straightforward initially but quickly gathers intrigue. Sophia (Catherine Walking) is a grieving mother who rents a mansion in rural Wales so she and an occultist, Joseph (Steve Oram), can perform a ritual. It is believed that if they were successful, each person would be granted a favor—any favor. Sophia wishes revenge upon those who murdered her seven-year-old son in a cult ritual. Joseph doubts her resolve.
I enjoyed that the picture does not follow a typical dramatic parabola—especially at the cost of entertainment. There are sections that are downright soporific because it adopts a molasses-like pacing in order to establish a certain tone and mood. But because the expected rhythm and beat is absent, it makes for an interesting experience because one feels the possibility that anything can happen in a story where, at first glance, nothing much happens at all. Not many projects dare to wear its skin without compromise.
Perhaps it is the point but I wished Walking and Oram had more chemistry. Not in a romantic kind of way, since that is not what the screenplay is going for, but in an overall rapport, especially when the two characters must clash, sometimes violently, and then share personal details because they are trapped in a situation they have created for themselves. However, I thought it was a fresh choice to cast performers who do not look like typical movie stars. Because they look like anybody who can be seen in a public place, it contributes to the believability of the film.
There are instances of creepiness or uneasiness but never any jump scare or standard way to alarm the viewer. However, it proves plenty of opportunities to doubt. Given that Sophia is secretive with what she hopes to accomplish, is she a reliable protagonist? Is Joseph a fraud, truly only in it for the eighty thousand pounds? Is something really happening in that house or are the strange coincidences products of their imagination? After all, the ritual involves grueling trials like abstaining from food for days, not leaving a marked area for hours, and not having enough sleep.
“A Dark Song” is not the kind of picture where one walks away not thinking about anything. And for that, it might be worth seeing at least once even if at times it is an experience to be endured. So many mainstream horror flicks exist simply to waste time and money. At least with this film, one can tell it is made with love and effort. I recommend it most to adventurous audiences.
Patient Zero (2018)
★ / ★★★★
Horror films without a third act must offer something so special in order for the final product to be satisfying, or least to avoid coming across as lazy. With a running time of around eighty minutes, “Patient Zero,” written by Mike Le and directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky, still feels bloated, from its interminable exposition, dialogue designed to explain rather than to further the plot, to generic flashbacks involving key characters being attacked by the rabid Infected for the first time. Just when it is about to get interesting, it simply… ends. I cannot imagine anyone begging for a sequel.
If being stuck in an underground bunker with uninteresting survivors is your idea of entertainment, then this picture deserves a most enthusiastic recommendation. Still, it is not without curious ideas. For instance, we learn that Morgan (Matt Smith), our protagonist, has been exposed to the rabies-like virus. But instead of being turned, he remains very much human and he is granted the ability to communicate with the Infected (side effect: intense headaches).
As a result, he has become an indispensable member in the government-sponsored research led by Dr. Rose (Natalie Dormer) to reverse-engineer a vaccine that might cure billions. To do this, they must find Patient Zero, the first human infected by the virus, and extract his or her blood. Morgan can essentially interrogate the physically restrained Infected—a species that, in theory, is so driven by animalistic urges, they are incapable of telling lies or deception.
Despite this intriguing idea, the character is a bore because there is a nagging subplot involving love interests. Every time romance becomes the focal point, the material screeches to a halt. It is maddening that Le is so uninspired by his own story that he felt the need to touch upon—but not explore in meaningful or fruitful ways—generic romantic feelings. It might have been different had such relationships commanded strong urgency—at least as urgent as the calamity that had befallen the planet. In a way, the screenplay, too, must function as an effective drama for us to buy into the human relationships, particularly a romantic kind, but it is clear that the material is not that ambitious.
The zombie attacks are not at all memorable. The makeup coupled with special and visual effects are convincing enough, but there is not one ambush or chase scene that stands out from either the technical standpoint or from a visceral perspective. Not once was I scared or was I forced to jump out of my seat. Both suspense and terror are so lacking, I found myself slouching in my seat just waiting for something—anything—to happen. The cast is exciting, from Smith and Dormer to Stanley Tucci, Agyness Deyn, and John Bradley, but not one of them is a standout. (Never mind the inconsistent American accents.)
“Patient Zero” is pedestrian to the bone. Due to the screenplay’s lack of commitment, a willingness to engage the viewer by assuming we are smart or that we had seen countless of undead pictures, not a minute of the film is believable. Even the underground base looks like a set.