Tag: shudder

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


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.

Sword of God


Sword of God (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a film that does not go out of its way so that viewers will care about its characters in a traditional fashion. It requires only that we observe with a perspicuous eye as two men end up on an island of pagans—one a warrior-priest whose life is defined by Christianity (Krzysztof Pieczynski) while the other a younger man of faith whose moral, ethical, and religious flexibility has allowed him thus far to scrape through most harrowing situations (Karol Bernacki). The former, Willibrord, hopes to convert the locals to Christianity—no matter what the cost. The latter, whose name is not revealed, has other plans. Beauty and horror become one in Bartosz Konopka’s consistently risk-taking experiment. I recommend it most to viewers with a palate for peculiarity; those who tune in for a casual watch will either be baffled or bored. But that’s art: polarity.

Some might claim that the picture is too bleak or grim. But I say that’s colonialism. What I admired about this project is its willingness to embrace the extreme while polishing it just enough so we can admire it in some way. Consider the images shown when we are introduced to the island’s inhabitants early in the picture. We meet them in cave while in the middle of a ritual as they grab mud, shape them, and wear them like masks. Then, as if possessed by animalistic spirits, they plug holes into the mud that’s plastered on their faces using their fingers and eventually peeling the mud off. There are chanting, hollering, and dancing yet there is not a single subtitle that appears to make it clear to us about what is or might be happening. I think the bizarre ritual is equivalent to people going to church and praying—it is only odd to us because we are not familiar with the natives’ culture.

At the same time, I could be completely off in my assessment. But I find that beautiful because possibilities can inspire discussion or debate. The movie goes on like this with great confidence. Something as simple as withholding subtitles from the audience goes a long way in a movie like this. For example, such a choice is a reminder that we are outsiders looking in, that by being on that island, we are not welcome, possibly for good reasons. Notice, too, how within the first minutes, we made to see through the eyes of Willibrord. And when Willibrord lies unconscious on the beach, we take on the perspective of No Name.

What makes this story a horror film is not because of the so-called uncivilized. Yes, they are covered in grime and mud. They do not have traditional homes, or wear ordinary clothing, or offer food that looks delectable. Nearly everything is communal. The film does not show it, but we can surmise that there may not be such a thing as traditional marriage or monogamy. Everyone is constantly touching each other, and I was fascinated by it. Anyone who has an appreciation for culture will recognize that what the locals have is a tight community.

The horror then comes in the form of outsiders who wish to destroy the lives of people simply minding their own business. But to these men, specifically the warrior-priest, the locals must be corrected—that the right way to live, and the only right way to live, is to live as a devout Christian. That intolerance—that lack of desire to learn about and embrace The Other… then being open to teach and be embraced in return—is real-life horror.

And it is happening right this moment. “Sword of God” holds a mirror on what is wrong about our supposedly modern society, as if to make statement that religion’s barbarism has been modified just enough so it comes across as though forcibly converting a community is not an act of rape.

Lucky


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?

The Devils


The Devils (1971)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Ken Russell’s “The Devils” is based on a true story that begins almost like a farce and then the farcical elements are taken to such an extreme that the work becomes a horror film. It is a fascinating movie: bizarre, daring, oddly paced, colorful in terms of images and performances, and certainly pointed with what it wishes to communicate about our society, specifically how indoctrinated we have become that more often than not many of us still fail to acknowledge facts even when they are slapping us around and spitting on our faces.

But what I loved most about the film is that it is filled with seething anger against those who take religion and use it as a weapon of manipulation in order to achieve one’s (or an establishment’s) own ends. Although the story takes place 1634, the messages it hopes to impart remain relevant today—and I believe will remain pertinent for another five hundred years.

It tells the story of a priest named Urbain Grandier who was burned at the stake at Loudun, France for supposed witchcraft, bewitching a convent, and making deals with the Devil. During the first part of the picture, we are shown that although Grandier is a soldier of God, he is very much human and therefore flawed: he sleeps with women, he is guilty of vanity, is prideful, and takes pleasure in having power. Grandier is portrayed by Oliver Reed and he injects the character with such machismo and charisma that when his character walks around the city, we can believe why women—even nuns—lust after him; Grandier is a walking movie star, a sex symbol. Although a man of cloth, the writer-director makes a point that the priest is an object to be possessed.

But it is not enough that we follow him around from the perspective of an adoring member of the public. I appreciated intimate and silent moments when it is Grandier by himself—or with a person whom he truly loves and values (Gemma Jones)—and we get to appreciate the respect he has for his faith regardless of his proclivity for self-indulgence. We feel his loneliness as he sits alone in his quarters, frustrations when he wants to do his job during confession but the people who come up to him simply want to bathe in his celebrity, and determination to keep some of Loudun’s independence from the French government. Even though Grandier can be understood superficially, the more perspicacious viewers will recognize that he is a person of substance, too—critical in order to completely appreciate the outrageous events that occur in the latter half.

The film could have easily been derailed. There is exaggerated clothing and cosmetics, the tone during the exposition is quite schizophrenic, some of the acting can be quite hyperbolic, and there is even a musical number. Instead, it is focused in the story it wishes to tell. Consider that we spend ample time within the famed walls of Loudun. But when the film steps outside of the city, especially when the attention turns toward Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) and Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) and they discuss, in amusing and terrifying ways, how else to gain more power within France, pieces begin to fall into place. There is political intrigue: Although Louis XIII is king, Richelieu is the rattlesnake in the grass. The contrast between these two men quickly stands out. Just look at how they’re clothed, the way their hair is worn, or if they don makeup. One man may have the power to instruct, but power lies in action. Richelieu enacts.

Another curious piece of the puzzle is Sister Jeanne des Anges (Vanessa Redgrave—so terrific in creating both a despicable and a tragic figure) who claims to love Father Grandier even though they have never met. The most striking moments in the film are when viewers are shoved into her sick fantasies—which almost always involve twisting a recorded event in the Bible—like caressing the body of Christ (Grandier), bowing to his feet, and licking his wounds. Cue the moaning, moments of ecstasy and orgasm. It is paramount that we be aware of what about the priest that excites her, that turns her on, that compels her to take action so that he would pay the slightest bit of attention to her: she who is a nun, who is a hunchback, who is considered to be ugly or unwanted—even in her own eyes.

This woman’s incendiary desires—lust—will lead the city into mass hysteria.

“The Devils” is one of those films that make you smile right in the middle of it because it feels like a miracle that it was made. There is plenty to bite into and explore here. I have not even gone into, for instance, the role of the public in amplifying drama which then gives otherwise preposterous claims—claims without a shred evidence—some weight or false substance. False rape accusations quickly come to mind. Here is a multifaceted biographical drama/horror film; what a unique combination. Do yourself a favor and choose to see this if you ever get a chance.

The Dark and the Wicked


The Dark and the Wicked (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a horror story that thrives in delivering terror in the intimate quiet. Although its plot is not original—adult siblings returning to their parents’ home because their father’s health has turned for the worse—it is confident in what type of tale it wishes to tell: minimalistic, relentless, bleak. “The Dark and the Wicked,” written and directed by Bryan Bertino, offers a foreboding mood, an increasing feeling of dread, and a slow but deliberate pacing. Jolts are present, but they are almost never the point. Notice how the horror tends to escalate once an entity reveals itself from the darkness.

I appreciated that the screenplay does not bother to offer an explanation in regard to whatever is going on in the farmhouse. We know there is a sort of haunting, but we don’t learn why or how it came about. It just is. We are given clues but not the connective tissues and so your interpretation of what might be happening may differ greatly from mine. For all we know, the house is sitting on an ancient Indian burial ground. But because its horror elements are quite potent at times, the lack of information does not matter. It leaves enough for the imagination.

Of utmost importance is survival; there is a reason why Mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) is quite distraught when her daughter, Louise (Marin Ireland), and son, Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.), both feeling guilty for not visiting their parents more often, show up despite the fact that she admonished them not to come. From the look of Mother’s exhausted and desolate eyes, she has been dealing with the evil presence—or whatever it is—for months. She no longer flinches when a kitchen chair moves on its own while she washes the dishes or cuts up vegetables. In fact, she gives off the feeling as though it is merely a part of her daily routine.

The picture reminded me of Nick Szostakiwskyj’s overlooked and underrated “Black Mountain Side.” It isn’t because the two share a similar plot or setting—far from it. Bertino’s story takes place in rural Texas which might as well be light years away from the icy mountains of Canada. The mood of “Wicked” is mournful and solemn while “Mountain” is mired in paranoia and isolation. Although Szostakiwskyj’s work is more oblique, perhaps even insular at times, the two possess an unrelenting vision: that the horror the characters experience is terrifying precisely due to its incomprehensible nature. It is a challenge to discern whether what’s going on can be explained by psychology or something that is not yet within the grasp of our understanding.

Having said that, the picture is limited by the writer-director’s seeming inability to establish a smooth flow from one scene to the next. This weakness is especially noticeable when a terrifying occurrence reaches a zenith; observe that a quick cut is almost always employed. Perhaps the point is to leave viewers rattled. But when the trick is used again and again, one cannot help but suspect it is more of a crutch than a deliberate, artistic choice. Had Bertino mixed it up a bit, perhaps it would not come across as a shortcoming.

Still, “The Dark and the Wicked” captured my interest all the way through—despite a most generic ending. Like James Wan’s two “Conjuring” films, I felt a certain presence of evil here, not when a ghost or demon is shown… but when it is daylight, when everything is where they should be, when characters feel safer, more protected than they do at night. But this isn’t meant to suggest that nothing terrifying unfolds during the day in this story—far from it.

Open 24 Hours


Open 24 Hours (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Padraig Reynolds’ “Open 24 Hours” thrives in brutality. When it goes all in with its violence, like showing a sledgehammer splitting open a person’s skull like a juicy watermelon—Thwack!—it is near impossible not to flinch. It acknowledges that violence can be ugly, dirty, messy, and may not be for everyone.

But the movie is not simply a spectacle for gore or barbarity. I think its goal is to modernize the classic slasher—notice its slow buildup and willingness to allow private conversations to unfold. Still, I think it could have been a more potent piece of work had it gone further. For instance, employing unusual or interesting camera angles, playing with harsh or atypical lighting, circumventing the expected beats that lead up to scares, adding an extended heart-pounding chase sequence or two, crafting a killer score. Although I enjoyed the picture, and I am giving it a mild recommendation, I feel it is not special enough to be remembered ten years from now.

Perhaps it has something to do with that lazy, cliché, throwaway ending. Horror movies, especially modern ones functioning on a limited budget, have such a difficult time presenting a satisfying closure. Offering a final shock—even though it fails to make any sense or is completely inappropriate—has become the norm. I expected more from Reynolds, who wrote and directed the underrated but confident horror-thriller “Rites of Spring.” Why not simply end the story in a way that feels right for the character, or characters, we’re following? Why must there be a need to question whether a sequel might follow?

It is also possible that another reason why the picture fails to stand out among its contemporaries is because our protagonist, Mary (Vanessa Grasse), is not a heroine who can belong in the classic slasher films that the writer-director clearly admires. The interesting thing is we are ready for her to be a Laurie Strode (“Halloween”), a Nancy Thompson (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”), a Sidney Prescott (“Scream”), or even a Ginny (“Friday the 13th Part 2”) because Mary has the backstory: she is a genuinely penitent ex-con, sent to prison for having set her former boyfriend on fire. And her ex just so happens to be the so-called Rain Ripper (Cole Vigue), whose modus operandi is kidnapping and murdering women when it rains. Mary was labeled by the media as The Watcher because for a time she knew about his… extracurricular activity but did nothing.

Grasse paints Mary as flawed but likable, still suffering from deep and unresolved trauma. Not to mention overwhelming guilt. There is one too many sequences where she experiences visual and auditory hallucinations even though these are executed rather well. When jolts come, you can tell that Reynolds is a fan of the horror genre. But it is most disappointing that when Mary is eventually hunted by the man she should have killed when she had the chance, we don’t quite feel that fight in her. Detecting that fire within our heroine is so important in slasher films. A case can be made that such fire can make or break a movie.

The body count is surprisingly high in this film—especially because it is filled with kind characters. There is Debbie (Emily Tennant), a true friend who decides to stick by her pal and actively root for her when Mary herself feels like she’s worthless. There is Bobby (Brendan Fletcher), a funny and caring gas station attendant who has been assigned to train recently hired Mary thirty minutes before her 10:00 P.M. to 6:00 A.M. shift. And then there is Tom (Daniel O’Meara), Mary’s parole officer. He is tough on Mary, but we never doubt his reasons. O’Meara portrays Tom as a man who is tired of seeing ex-cons get sent back to jail for being foolish. There is not one line of dialogue that suggests this possibility; it is all in the eyes and how he carries himself.

“Open 24 Hours” is a tough call from the angle of giving recommendation to the general audience. It may not possess an original story, but it does a handful of things right. However, it is an easy call for horror fans: It is likely you’ll find entertainment or value from it even though a. it is far from innovative from a storytelling point of view and b. it is not quite successful in shaping a modern slasher to be shortlisted as a standout for years to come. It has enough personality and flavor to sustain a hundred minutes—and sometimes that’s enough to scratch the itch.

Shook


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.

The Wolf House


The Wolf House (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Those starved for new images should make it a priority to watch Cristobal León and Joaquín Cociña’s “La casa lobo,” a stop-motion animated horror film so bizarre that it is impossible not to stop, stare, and admire the visual acrobatics displayed on screen.

Without the proper context, a viewer might summarize the story this way: Fearing punishment, a girl named Maria (Amalia Kassai) runs away from her village and finds refuge in a house in the middle of the woods; she spends some time there and eventually decides to return home. But this unique film is inspired by an actual case of Colonia Dignidad (“Dignity Colony,” later renamed Villa Baviera), a cult founded by a German pedophile who emigrated to Chile. Residents were tortured and killed, males and females were segregated, children were sexually abused and drugged, and communication from the outside world was prohibited. Nazis and other war criminals were welcomed there.

The picture commands a specific perspective in that it is meant to be a tool for indoctrination. This can be supported by the opening and closing minutes. In the former, which is told using “live action” images, we get a sneak peek of the village. People appear to live simple lives; their lifestyle seems to be peaceful and inviting. The narrator emphasizes the community’s relationship with the earth, the animals, nature. But notice: Although we see people walking about, there are no close-ups of faces. Images are shot from a distance—far enough to hide or blur certain elements that may prove revealing. An illusion of tranquility is created.

In the latter, stop-motion animation on full throttle, the movie just… ends—unsettling in a different way because the happy ending comes out of nowhere. It feels wrong. This is purposeful; we are meant to be shocked, to question, to wonder what really happened. We cannot help but to feel lied to. Think of a fairy tale like “The Little Riding Hood” where the wolf eats the grandmother whole and suddenly a title card appears with the message, “And Little Red Riding Hood decides to turn back and head home.” Clearly, the screenwriters León, Cociña, and Alejandra Moffat put a lot of thought into what they wish for the viewers to feel and consider.

They also put a lot of thought, patience, and energy into the incredible animation. We are so used to stop-motion animation that comes across clean, sanitized, expensive. An animation studio like Laika, for instance, does an excellent job hiding strings and wires, making sure that camera movements feel smooth and natural, that themes and messages to be conveyed are fully ironed out. Naturally, the vibe behind the animation must appeal to children.

“The Wolf House” throws such expectations out the window and spits upon them. The story takes place mostly inside a house and so the filmmakers are forced to be creative. I loved it when characters are presented as paintings on walls. When they move—keeping in mind the stop-motion approach—we see the tracks and gradations of their movement; the more they move, the more we see painting spatters on the floor—elements that would be eliminated or hidden in a work designed to appeal to the mainstream. Another: when creepy 3D models are required to make either sudden or slow, carefully controlled movements, wires jutting from their bodies can be seen from the moon. Leaving out such “flaws” doesn’t matter because what counts is how convinced we are of the action once the wires are pulled.

The rawness of this film allows it to stand out among its contemporaries. At the same time, it made me appreciate the astonishing effort put into this type of animation regardless of whether the work is meant to appeal to millions or a select few. Sure, jump into it for its strange appeal. But it is likely that you’ll find yourself sticking with it for the small but wonderful details, both in terms of story subtext and execution on how best to engage us visually.

2D or 3D, observe how the characters’ eyes are always expressive. When you feel lost, and more than a handful will because the screenplay is uninterested in stating the obvious, look into the eyes. They are the anchor.

Hunted


Hunted (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

The revenge-thriller “Hunted” tells the story of a woman who meets an alluring man in a nightclub. When the flirtation is over, she believes they are about to head to his place. Goal. But no, they end up in the woods instead. You think you know where this is going—“revenge-thriller,” a random hook-up, “the woods”—and you’d be partly correct. You see, these elements must be present to get us to think a certain way and therefore expect specific plot developments to unfold.

It is a clever little tale, in parts, which opens with another woman—credited only as The Huntress (Simone Milsdochter)—telling her young boy (Vladimir Ryelandt, Ryan Brodie) about the woods they’re camping in. It is breathing, it is sentient, spirits reside in it. It is a protector of the innocent. Director Vincent Paronnaud, who co-wrote the screenplay with Léa Pernollet, leaves the gate with enthusiasm, vision, and a wonderful sense of visuals: The Huntress’ story is told through a curious mix of live-action and animation, like a comic book that’s alive. The bar is set so high, the rest of the picture, while peppered with inspired moments, struggles to catch up to it.

The charming man is never given a name. He is played by Arieh Worthalter. The performance reminded of a Jack Nicholson-lite, unafraid to look ugly, crazy, and savage as long as we are terrified. (And the performance would not be Nicholson-like if humor—dark humor—were completely removed.) Particularly interesting is when the man converses with other people and attempts to put on an act of normality. As hard as he tries, Worthalter portrays the man as incapable doing so, his mask of what he believes is a friendly person always on the verge of slipping. This psychopath is uncomfortable watch—which makes him a fascinating specimen.

The woman in danger is named Eve. Lucie Debay is given the more controlled performance of the two leads although there are instances when she is required to equal his insanity. I enjoyed that Debay’s Eve always has something going on in those eyes. We learn only a few details about Eve’s personal life during the exposition and, like most heroines in revenge-thrillers, she is written to make unwise decisions from time to time for the sake of building another opportunity for yet another extended chase sequence, but I felt annoyed of the protagonist. Like the antagonist, there is a curiosity in her. I wished their twisted relationship were explored further, outside of a classic cat-and-mouse game.

Paronnaud takes risks during the latter half. By then our expectations are in place and then he subverts it—not completely but just enough for some who remain hanging on for the ride to let go and get engorged in the pandemonium. There are symbolisms with animals, hallucinatory sequences, slow motion. Lodged in between are moments of violence: throat slashing, a finger in a gash that requires stitches, broken noses, hands around another’s throat.

Although I felt there is a rhythm to it, I never bought into the dance. I admired it, like I would a well-executed scientific experiment, but I did not feel connected—deeply—with all the goings-on. I smiled at the fact that the writer-director created a film that need not be made but he did anyway because perhaps he needed to exorcise something. Is the work making a feminist statement? Does it wish to comment on the corruption of sexuality between genders in modern times? Is the goal quite simply to create a lovechild between revenge-thriller and arthouse? I don’t know, and I don’t care. But I sure am I glad I sat through it.

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 Cleansing Hour


The Cleansing Hour (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Selling one’s soul in order to get recognition on social media is an idea worth exploring in “The Cleansing Hour,” based on the screenplay by Damien LeVeck (who directs) and Aaron Horwitz, but the picture is so bogged down by ostentatious exorcism tropes that it feels as though half of its running time is dedicated to showing what viewers expect, from objects being flung across the room to characters meeting gruesome fates, rather than delivering what is right for the story being told. What results is a work that gets mired in special and visual effects—empty, repetitive, tiresome—while its more notable ideas take a back seat.

The plot revolves around best friends Drew (Kyle Gallner) and Max (Ryan Guzman) who live stream fake exorcisms. Although they have a sizable audience who actually believe that such exorcisms are real, Drew, who works behind the camera, thinks they can draw in more people by expanding their toolkit outside of exorcisms. But Max, the star of the show, doesn’t care to do so; he is happy just to be recognized by fans, perhaps even sleep with them once in a while. He does, however, wish that he be verified on social media already—for that blue check is a mark of influence, of authority. You see, even on the level of character—money versus fame—there is something worth looking into. Yet the drama is never mined.

A movie like this is further evidence that exorcism movies can be deceptively simple. It is not about creepy demonic voices, learning a demon’s name so it could then be expelled from its host, or showing excessive gore and projectile vomiting. Successful exorcism movies are about our latent fears, desires, trauma embedded in our subconscious.

In this story, the heart of the picture is the friendship between Drew and Max. Flashbacks are employed to show us that the two have known each other since they were children and have endured various torment in school in the hands of a nun. Perhaps this trauma remains to be the glue that binds Drew and Max even though their friendship has become twisted, perverted, unhealthy, one-sided. Notice that without these flashbacks, there would be nothing of note about the duo. The actors share no believable chemistry nor does the screenplay bother to go out of its way to underscore that even though the relationship has been reduced to a business, the two would remain to have each other’s backs—just like when they were children.

And so there is no drama. When faced with a demon (Drew’s fiancée is used as a host, played by Alix Angelis), we simply sit back and watch Drew and Max scramble about, scream in horror, and look directly to camera as they confess their sins to their fans. Cue the fans’ concerned expressions. We are detached from their plight, knowing that it is only a matter of time until the demon goes about its usual bodily contortions and psychokinesis.

Another disappointment: For a story that places emphasis on social media, the camera does not linger long enough on the stream of comments being submitted by fans. There is a disconnect. We see faces of select concerned viewers—from Washington D.C., South Korea, to Israel—but some of the comments (from what I gathered between quick glimpses) are quite negative, relishing on the violence that’s unfolding. Why not also show the faces of those who thrive on schadenfreude—regardless of whether they believe a real exorcism is happening? Even on this basic level, the work fails to paint a fuller picture.

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.