Tag: shudder

Spiral


Spiral (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

Random Acts of Violence


Random Acts of Violence (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

There is an intriguing story buried in “Random Acts of Violence,” based on the graphic novel by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, but screenwriters Jay Baruchel (who directs) and Jesse Chabot seems to have injected more effort in delivering gruesome kills and how to make them as gory as possible instead of honing in on the protagonist’s childhood trauma and how that routed and elevated his career as a comic book artist. What results is a work that is frustrating to sit through because while it is able to reach a few inspired moments, particularly in delivering wicked images right before a murder, there is a glaring lack of compelling substance.

The comic book artist is named Todd Walkley (Jesse Williams) and he is on a road trip with his girlfriend (Jordana Brewster), publisher (Baruchel), and assistant (Niamh Wilson) from Toronto to New York City. Experiencing a drought of inspiration on how to end his long-running comic book series “Slasherman,” which is based on real-life murders on the I-90 from 1987 to 1991, he hopes that he can come up with something of value—a message or statement that his readers will find unforgettable—by the tour’s end. During their trip, however, bodies begin to pile up and the murders look eerily similar to killings illustrated on Todd’s R-rated comics. Clearly, this premise offers a wellspring of potential for further exploration. And playfulness.

But the final product leaves a lot to be desired. Notice the script’s lack of polish. For instance, when Todd and Kathy (Brewster) clash in regards to what they wish to accomplish using the Slasherman legend, there is a lack of conviction. The former leans on almost idolizing the figure. When challenged about what he wishes to communicate about his work’s level of violence, his reaction is to go on the defense. The latter, on the hand, strives to publish an independent work that focuses on the Slasherman’s victims. She feels that, in the comics, they are marginalized, treated as tools, then forgotten. When Todd and Kathy conflict, their disagreements lack maturity. The lines uttered come across whiny and amateurish—as if the duo hasn’t been in the business for years. This glaring lack of authenticity takes us out of the picture and so the drama is not believable. It’s a shame because I enjoyed the chemistry between Brewster and Williams, especially when they manage to hit the right notes of a scene.

The use of flashbacks becomes a distraction eventually. When adult Todd experiences extreme highs and lows of emotion, an image of young Todd (Isaiah Rockcliffe) bathed in reddish and purple colors is displayed on screen. It appears the boy is transfixed on something but we are not shown as to what until the end. These repetitive flashbacks hamper the momentum of increasing tension, especially when those whom Todd cares about find themselves in mortal danger. The better approach is to allow a scene play out in its entirety; giving the audience no moment of pause or breath. There is no suspense created when we are forced to stare at a child’s familiar expression during the middle of the action.

It fails to play upon a level of self-awareness that is innate in a plot like this. Although this might be an artistic choice, which I can accept, other elements alongside it—convincing character relationships, strong ear for dialogue, cogent statement(s) it wishes to get across about our relationship with violence, defined or blurred demarcation between fiction and real-life, an artist’s responsibility, if any, toward his work and his fans—do not function on a high enough level to create a substantive work worthy of examination and rumination. It seems content in introducing ideas and then disposing of them just as quickly or whenever convenient. I wished the screenplay had been given more time in the oven because it could have been a different beast entirely.

The Dirties


The Dirties (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

“What are you doing? It’s me.”

It is almost impossible to go through this movie without feeling a heavy knot growing in the pit of your stomach. We know that its final destination is a school shooting. And director Matt Johnson (who co-stars and co-writes) spends ample time putting all the pieces into place until the horrifying but well-earned first gunshot. The film is suspenseful and scary, but it is also very funny and sad—certainly compelling at times because it is honest about high school life, especially in the way it captures how it is like to be an outcast.

I saw myself in best friends Matt (Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams) even though I do not consider myself having been a victim of bullying. The recognition comes in the form of how the two boys relate, like their passion for making movies, putting on costumes, laughing and making fun of themselves. The silly jokes that are only hilarious to them while strange in the eyes of others. It is in how they’re relaxed when around one another, how they know precisely what the other is thinking when their eyes meet at the same time. I believed that Owen and Matt have known each other for more than half their lives; they’re always on the same wavelength.

That is, until they are assigned a school project which involves making a short film. They choose to make a comedy called “The Dirties” which is about killing a gang of high school bullies. Although creative and energetic, bad words and guns are prevalent—totally not appropriate to be shown in class. We already know what the teacher will say when he sees the rough cut. Still, Matt and Owen comply. They have no choice; it’s due to the next day. For one of the boys, though, the project continues after the video is shown in class. He decides that those who’ve tormented them for so long deserve to die. So, he goes to the library to ask for the high school’s blueprints. He is amused by how easy it was to get.

I appreciated that the picture does not diminish bullying in high school. For instance, when Owen is smacked in the head with a rock, not only are we shown the blood, time is taken to underscore the fact that Owen is unable to stand up—due to the pain and, perhaps more importantly, for being completely humiliated. I noticed myself feeling so upset and angry—like a friend was being bullied right in front of my eyes. I caught myself thinking I wanted payback. Enough is enough. The writer-director (Evan Morgan co-writes) has done such a terrific job of welcoming us into Matt and Owen’s little world that we feel like we are one of them.

I think “The Dirties” makes a strong double bill with with Gus Van Sant’s excellent “Elephant.” Both involve high school shootings. Their tones are completely different. Yet the tension, and suspense, in both films are high. Both possess a gritty, realistic feel to them. Their endings are handled very differently. But both are effective. Do not miss this one.

Host


Host (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

In just under one hour, director Rob Savage (who co-writes with Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd) is able to tell a satisfying horror tale about a group of friends who summon an entity through a seance using the Zoom app in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. It wears its inspirations on its sleeves—“Paranormal Activity,” “Unfriended,” and “Friend Request” quickly come to mind—yet it is able to take note of what worked and makes them more potent. I wish more movies can be as direct and efficient; it is apparent the filmmakers value our time.

We are not meant to get to know any of the characters—not even Haley (Haley Bishop), host of the video chat who has hired Seylan (Seylan Baxter) to guide them through the seance. However, we are presented just enough details in order to get a surface feel of the participants’ personalities, from Haley who holds a certain respect (and thrill) in communicating with the dead, Caroline (Caroline Ward) who is open to an experience that may or may not turn out to be a dud, to Jemma (Jemma Moore) who is clearly in it just for the laughs.

One trait they all have in common: They miss each other after having been quarantined for months. Their apartments look messy and lived in—one or two in need of serious vacuuming. We also get a sense that some of the girls are closer to some than others—a delightful, realistic touch that did not be included in a breezy horror picture. But because it is there, it sets itself further apart from its contemporaries. Future works to be inspired by this film should take note.

There is restraint in utilizing special and visual effects. Naturally, there will be jump scares. When a character faces a dark room and points out to others that she sees something standing there, cue the countdown to the “Boo!” moment. Sometimes there are jolts. But other times the lack of it is unsettling. Its ability to change gears keeps us on our toes. The work does not always feel the need to show in order to pique our curiosity. There are instances when the horror relies upon knowing with absolute certainty that an apparition is in the room but a girl is helpless from doing anything about it. But because she is panic-stricken, she just has to know where it is in order to cope. And so she disperses flour all around the room.

There are far too many moments when characters are pulled or dragged around by an invisible force. One or two times does the job; five or six times is laughable. Still, I admired “Host” what it is able to accomplish with minimal budget, a short running time, the many familiar (and problematic) tropes it embraces, and its knack for finding ways to sell the familiar as fresh. I am interested in seeing the screenwriters helm an original work far more daring than this one. This is a solid showcase of their potential.

Impetigore


Impetigore (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bone Box


The Bone Box (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

Absentia


Absentia (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Writer-director Mike Flanagan’s debut feature film proves that showing the monster completely is not necessary to construct an effective horror film. Instead, he drowns the viewer in tense and portentous atmosphere, creepy folklores, and genuine humanity. Only ten minutes into the picture—opening credits included—already we are presented with an emotional hook: Tricia (Courtney Bell) confesses to her younger sister, Callie (Katie Parker), what she forces herself to think or imagine in regards to what might have happened to her husband since his disappearance seven years ago. Here is a portrait of a woman so lonely, so sad, and so desperate to have some semblance of closure in her marriage that she is unable to move forward with her life. Her husband is not the only thing that disappeared seven years ago. So did her own light.

We meet Tricia putting up new missing person posters and right away we detect a melancholy about her. She moves rather slowly not because she’s pregnant but because she is pulled between past and future. The present is unbearable; she lacks purpose. It is quite possible she’s depressed. Bell portrays Tricia as a motherly and sisterly figure with seeming ease. We wish to get to know her character even though she is clearly not at her best. Flanagan makes the correct decision to allow Tricia and Callie to talk deeply—about Daniel’s disappearance, Tricia delaying to find a new place to live and start a new chapter, Callie’s history with drug addiction. What’s brilliant is the fact that these personal details are not simply utilized to garner our sympathy. These are tied into the mystery at hand: What is going on in this neighborhood, especially its track record of people suddenly being spirited away?

There are numerous creepy and downright chilling images, from bug-like shadow creatures skittering about, a shower curtain moving just a little bit when nothing is supposed to be behind it, ghostly Daniel appearing in the background when Tricia closes her eyes—and sometimes right in front of her when she opens them. Couple these with Flanagan’s expert use of silence. We learn to brace ourselves when all we can hear are footsteps and the sounds of our characters breathing. Notice, too, that when the unsettling score is employed, it is also overpowering. It is interesting that at times the score booms and we are forced to listen closely at the subtler sounds of a scene. Clearly, Flanagan wishes for us to engage with the material, to use all of our senses and turn on our brains—the opposite of many modern horror movies.

I enjoyed there is no explanation offered about the origins of the monsters. To do so would have eroded their mystique, possibly made them less scary. I would even go as far to say that going down that route would have made the story more pedestrian. Instead, we are given time to absorb and process the lies the characters tell themselves in order to try to make sense of seemingly inexplicable paranormal phenomenon. Because are provided rich character details, the various puzzle pieces can be put together so that rationalizations are pragmatic, “conclusive.” This is true to life, I think. We are biologically wired this way so that we can move on from tragic and/or traumatic events. The goal of this film is to put that idea into context.

“Absentia” may be low on budget but it is high on ambition, imagination, and entertainment value. Obviously a fan of the horror genre, Flanagan is aware of the usual rhythm and beat—he uses them as they are sometimes and there are instances when he turns them upside down. But most of his effort is put into creating humanistic and deeply flawed characters so that we care about them as if we know them personally. I grew so attached to Tricia and Callie, I found myself wanting a sequel… even though I know deep down that the story is complete as is.

The Burning


The Burning (1981)
★ / ★★★★

Clearly influenced by Sean S. Cunningham’s “Friday the 13th,” “The Burning,” too, takes place in a lakeside summer camp where a deranged masked killer slaughters hormonal teenagers one by one until a most predictable final chase scene in the dark—one last “Gotcha!” moment included. So it immediately begs the question: Does this film, penned by Bob Weinstein and Peter Lawrence, have something new or exciting to bring to the party? No, it does not. It is uninspired and underachieving for the most part… yet I did not find it to be completely worthless.

I found this picture capable of rivaling Robert Hiltzik’s “Sleepaway Camp” when it comes to establishing a convincing camp setting. Young people are all over the place; there is almost always something happening in the background or on the side of the screen. Even posters on walls, magazines on desks, snacks and knickknacks on shelves are eye-catching.

Notice that during the first half, time is taken to introduce the main players: The mature and kindly camp counselors Todd and Michelle (Brian Matthews, Leah Ayres) who clash at times in terms of how to handle their charges when they misbehave; the bully Glazer (Larry Joshua) and his constant target of ridicule Alfred (Brian Backer); Alfred’s energetic bunkmates (Jason Alexander, Ned Eisenberg, J.R. McKechnie) who see Glazer more as a big lug instead of a tormentor (they are not afraid to fight back); and various girls who swoon every time a boy pays them the most modicum amount of attention. There is a sense of joy in simply watching these characters be while in summer camp. There were moments when I thought the material could work as a comedy.

However, the handling of the killer is completely wrong. His name is Cropsy (Lou David), once the caretaker of a neighboring camp, Camp Blackfoot, whose body is so badly burnt due to a prank gone wrong that it took him five years to recuperate in the hospital. Skin grafts did not take. This figure is supposed to be so angry, so thirsty for revenge that a prostitute, who had nothing at all to do with the prank, triggers him, not yet an hour into his release, to impale her with a set of garden shears in cold blood. We hear urban legends about Cropsy and how evil he was even before being barbecued. But not once do we get to really feel this monster’s mean streak, his wickedness. He has a mask but without a personality.

Strange, too, is the fact that we rarely get a chance to have a good look at him. Watch closely: Director Tony Maylam has a curious habit of putting us in the perspective of the killer, hiding real low in the bushes like an animal. However, it is apparent that Maylam roots for the young characters to make it and so allowing the viewers to see the action—even the murders themselves—from the killer’s eyes is completely inappropriate. I felt an awkwardness, a disconnect, a lack of a defined vision. It might have been the better choice to show the antagonist—full-bodied—from time to time no matter how ridiculous he looked. Confidence goes a long way while insecurity is blinding.

I enjoyed the make-up effects by Tom Savini. Particularly memorable is the raft scene when Cropsy attacks and disposes of five teenagers within seconds: throats are slashed, fingers are cut off, a number of them impaled. It is violent, shocking, well-edited, and the convincing practical effects amplify the horror. If only the rest of the material functioned on this level.

The Beach House


The Beach House (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Somewhere inside “The Beach House” is an intimate but ambitious horror story in which microorganisms from the ocean threaten global takeover. But the work, written and directed by Jeffrey A. Brown, is a disappointment for the most part because it fails to engage viewers in ways that do not rely on the usual tropes of independent filmmaking: slow as molasses pacing, constant flashing and overexposure of lights during the climax, transitory images of nature and other curious phenomena. At times it is too artsy for its own good which distracts from the visceral experience it offers. In a movie like this, I argue it is more impactful to tell or show the story straight.

I appreciated the performances by lead actors Liana Liberato and Noah Le Gros who play Emily and Randall, a couple who decide to get away and try to put their relationship back on track. Although they expected some alone time together, it turns out that that the beach house that Randall’s father owns is already occupied by another couple, Mitch and Jane (Jake Weber, Maryann Nagel), friends of Randall’s family. I could feel Liberato and Le Gros attempting constantly to wring out every bit of emotion from a rather bland script, but there are instances when even they are unable to provide further dimensions from what is written on the page.

I wished they were challenged more because the dinner scene, for instance, when Emily and Randall describe their backgrounds and aspirations (she an aspiring scientist; he a college dropout who hopes to forge a path outside of the standard route of college-diploma-marriage-mortgage-kids), there is genuine engagement there. It made me wish to learn more about Emily and Randall, both as a couple and as individuals, outside of the horror angle of the story.

When the picture finally evolves into a full-blown body horror, it is disappointing that there is only one or two memorable scenes. While I do not require first-rate special and visual effects (there are good ones here: giant clams, worms inside feet, faces appearing to melt or decompose, goo dripping out of faucets), I do expect constant creativity whether it be in terms of expanding ideas, delivering plot surprises, or providing simple but solid scares. Instead, numerous scenes are reduced to our injured protagonists dragging their sweaty and tired bodies from one location to another.

It becomes a trial to sit through. And when we do hear news from the radio or television, which is supposed to shed light on what is going on in other coastal areas—possibly on a global scale, the announcements are barely audible, staticky, and so often interrupted or cut abruptly. Emily and Randall must then continue to find another shelter. It becomes repetitive and a bore.

While it is easy to recognize what the film is going for, there are other, better movies that have traversed similar avenues. A few that quickly come to mind: John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” Frank Darabont’s “The Mist,” Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” and, most recently, Richard Stanley’s “Color Out of Space.” When you put this film right alongside these titles, it just doesn’t stand out. I am, however, looking forward to the writer-director’s next project. I think he has the imagination, the talent, and the will to make a film worth remembering.

Lyle


Lyle (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Stewart Thorndike’s debut picture is obviously inspired by Roman Polanski’s horror classic “Rosemary’s Baby.” Like that film, this one is patient, more interested in building suspense rather than delivering thrills, and quite unsettling when all is revealed. But unlike that film, the writer-director, clearly skillful when it comes to establishing pacing and possessing a keen eye for making ordinary objects look sinister, is able to tell his story—about a pregnant woman who suspects that the manager (Rebecca Street) in the building intends to kill her baby—in just one hour. It is so impressive, that by the end of it I wondered why most pictures these days need to be at least eighty minutes. “Lyle” values our time.

And our intelligence. There is not one jump scare to be had here. No CGI monster or demon that appears from the dark. (No practical one either.) There are, however, shots of people looking at the very pregnant Leah just a little bit longer than they should. As if they admire her, hoping to touch her, taste her. Leah is played with terrific gusto and magnetism by Gaby Hoffman. Not only is she required to portray the raw physicality of pregnancy, she must convince us that her character’s every waking hour of grief and depression from having lost her firstborn is another weight on her shoulders. It is critical that we question her mental state at times. That perhaps she is only imagining that a person, or persons, is out to get her.

Additional pressure: Leah feels that her partner, June (Ingrid Jungermann), who works for a record company, is beginning to grow distant the more they become financially successful. Jungermann does a good job as the cooler of the two heads. Her June must be the anchor of their family, in a traditional sense, during a most tumultuous pregnancy. The performer is correct to leave the possibility that her character might be up to something menacing. (She works long hours. When questioned about it, it is ignored.) In a story like this, in order to be truly effective, we must suspect everyone. Because when we do, we watch a little more closely and we are engaged to read between the lines.

Suspense is not simply reliant on who is up to what (if any) or whoever is involved, real or imagined. I enjoyed the daring of the dialogue, particularly when characters say the painfully awkward things during the most inappropriate times. The therapy sessions (Ashlie Atkinson playing the marriage counselor) are firecrackers because it is the time and place where Leah and June feel they can express thoughts and feelings they tend to hide or cover up while at home. It is suggested to Leah that she is such in a deep state of grief that perhaps she has started to imagine things in order to cope. She’s not convinced this is at all the case. Are we?

“Lyle” is a true psychological horror in that it is able to a lot with sounds. Rapid, baby-like footsteps can be heard when it is only Leah and her firstborn in the house… while the toddler is in the same room as our heroine, sitting in one spot. Muffled exchanges can be heard in the walls. Leah opens the front door and catches the building manager, who is at least sixty years old, pretending to be pregnant and lactating. Really bizarre happenings. Familiar elements are there yet it still makes you wonder how all the creepy pieces will fit together. Or will they? It depends on perspective.

Metamorphosis


Metamorphosis (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Kim Hong-seon’s “Metamorphosis” tries to inject new blood in the exorcism subgenre, but its aspiration is far more admirable than its execution. It has learned nothing from failed American demonic possession movies. It chooses ostentatious shocks, gore, and visual effects at just about every opportunity instead of focusing on telling a specific story—a personal story—of a family who moves into a new home following the patriarch’s brother, a priest, who lived with them at the time, having inadvertently killed a girl during an exorcism. It’s as fresh as a decomposing corpse.

If one just so happened to miss the opening sequence, one might assume that the material is a haunted house story; details are amorphous. Gang-goo (Sung Dong-il) is optimistic about the new home they had just purchased from an auction… that nobody was interested in bidding on. The wife, Myung-joo (Jang Young-nam), does not share his sentiment; she considers it a hassle, along with the middle child, Hyun-joo (Cho Yi-hyun), to have to uproot their lives due to Joong-soo’s (Bae Sung-woo) incompetence which led to a tragic death. The eldest daughter, Sun-woo (Kim Hye-jun), and the only son, Woo-jong (Kim Kang-hoon), on the other hand, are quite close to their uncle. They don’t mind the move so much, and they miss him.

The first act shows a bit of promise. We are given a few hints that this is a family who has lost, or in the process of losing, their faith. Myung-joo insists that all religious paraphernalia go in the basement. There is also a clever bit regarding a neighbor who makes loud sloshing noises in the middle of the night—clearly winking at the phrase “Hell is other people.” Maybe the recently purchased home is bad news, cursed, or simply unlucky on top of the uncle’s past clearly coming to haunt his loved ones. It is all a matter of time.

But connective tissues among the elements I’ve described are not fully ironed out. The bad neighbor is dropped less than halfway through; we get one flashback in the latter hour which provides no explanation that makes sense. Bizarre events occur in the newly purchased home like the devil taking the form of every family member… yet not one is convincing because the actors either choose or are instructed to overact.

We do not even get to feel or appreciate the love between two brothers, Gang-goo and Joong-woo, which proves to be critical later on due to handful of scenes meant to tug at the heartstrings. When not generic, elements are put together quite haphazardly; tension fails to accumulate because we are too distracted from trying to decipher the connections among the puzzle pieces. There is a difference between engagement and busy work. This is the latter.

Outside of the issues with the screenplay, notice that the filmmakers often feel the need to remind us that the budget is being used: characters fly across the room, the wind machine must be at max setting when the devil speaks (cue the deep voice, yellow contact lenses required), skin boils and lashes must look as disgusting as possible, dead animals must be hung on trees, there must be at least ten upside down crosses, floors must be covered in blood. It’s just too much—overcompensation for its lack of substance. It feels much longer than two hours.

Warning: Do Not Play


Warning: Do Not Play (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Please play because Kim Jin-won’s “Warning: Do Not Play” is a solid exercise in mood and paranoia. It can be criticized for the more clichéd aspects of the story, like the protagonist always ending up in places where she shouldn’t be then having to fight for her life, but that is not the point. The goal is to provide a creepy time and it works. Unlike most modern horror movies that mire themselves in busyness, noise, and jumps scares, this one often chooses stillness, silence, a growing sense of unease.

The desperate Mi-jung (Neo Ye-ji) has two weeks left to submit a workable film or else she’s out of a job. She is so stressed, she has started to have nightmares of being stuck in a movie theater with a ghost. A friend and possible romantic interest, Joon-Seo (Ji Yoon-ho), tells her about a film, submitted by a university student as his final project some time ago, that was so scary, audiences left the auditorium in the middle of the showing because they couldn’t handle the images on screen. At the time the director of that feature, Jae-hyun (Jin Seon-kyu), claimed it had been shot by a ghost. No one has heard of him since. Wishing to know more about the movie and the filmmaker, Mi-jung decides to investigate and, if possible, get her hands on a copy of the urban legend.

One of the strongest elements in this gem is the writer-director’s ability to get us into the headspace of our heroine. She is often alone in her apartment. She finds herself lost in her notes, movies, her own thoughts. We see glimpses of her past when she tried to commit suicide in a bathtub. Was she bullied? We are not provided precise reasons why she felt she needed to end her life. And when she is outdoors conversing with another person, it is as though she isn’t fully there. We feel this dark cloud hovering right behind her, the blinding need to make a horror movie—it just has to be horror—even though she lacks compelling inspiration or original vision. Because we are given time to appreciate her motivations and circumstances, we understand why she feels she must gamble her life constantly to have a taste of recognition.

This is a story, I think, about social approval. The ghost—which looks rather scary not when it moves but when it stands still with those bulging eyes staring deep into your soul—works as a metaphor for that voice in our heads that tells us we must constantly deliver, move forward, and accomplish in order to be regarded as a productive and/or successful member of society. It is the pressure that we put upon themselves and how we mistaken that at times for purpose.

Does Mi-jung want fame? I think she does, more than she herself knows or cares to admit. At least more than the need to exorcise the sadness and tragedy of her past. This is the aspect of the screenplay I felt could have used further development. I enjoyed that for this particular character, it is important that she be lauded or celebrated or else she does not feel complete. I don’t think she really cares whether her work is an original or a forgery so long as someone else elevates her with congratulatory words and handshakes.

The final act might have been more effective had the more overt horror elements, like characters being dragged across the room by an invisible presence and dying in gruesome ways, been more subtle and the tragedy of human foibles been amplified. The former gets repetitive after a while. Still, “Warning: Do Not Play” is worth seeing because it is not just a horror movie offering cheap scares. It has something to say about human nature.

Blood Quantum


Blood Quantum (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

“The earth is an animal. Living and breathing. White men don’t understand this.”

Writer-director Jeff Barnaby offers a fresh take on the zombie subgenre by centering the story around a community of indigenous people in Canada. It works as a strong commentary on colonialism, but it is also savagely entertaining, filled with beautiful and haunting images of barren post-apocalyptic landscapes, of animals infected with an unknown virus, and of diseased and dying people. Unlike its contemporaries, particularly American undead pictures, it does not go out of its way to make stabbings, slashings, and beheadings particularly exciting or thrilling. Often the act of taking a life—dead or undead—is sad, poetic, a thing that must be done for the greater good.

Right from the opening scene we are presented a curiosity. An old man (Stonehorse Lone Goeman) guts fish he had taken out of the water. Nothing strange or new, just another peaceful day. Or so it seems. The fish appear to be dead on the platter… until they begin to move, subtlety at first then breaking out into horrifying convulsions. This perfectly sets up how the story will unfold, and Barnaby tackles the material with an expert level of control and confidence. He wastes no time introducing the characters while proving he has an ear for quiet and thoughtful dialogue. All of this is handed to us in under fifteen minutes. Barnaby is one to watch.

One of the characters we meet is Traylor (Michael Greyeyes), a local sheriff in Red Crow Reservation whose two sons, Joseph (Forrest Goodluck) and Alan/“Lysol” (Kiowa Gordon), have just been taken behind bars. We learn that the two brothers are estranged and the former wishes to get to know the other better. The latter is angry toward his father but for reasons that are murky. We can surmise, however, that Lysol feels abandoned. He dares not admit to it, but he is eyes scream the fact he jealous of his younger sibling. Surrounding this family drama, one that is never syrupy or melodramatic, is an awakening of a pandemic. We hear over radio that there are increasing reports of bites and that ambulances have been unavailable for the past couple of hours. Some who have called for help are still waiting for medical attention hours later. Soon we get to see why.

Although told elegantly with rich context and subtext, the work is not above delivering B-movie violence and gore. The aforementioned fisherman wields a sword like a dauntless samurai. We meet a man with an imposing presence who prefers to use a chainsaw to defend himself against hordes of zombies (Brandon Oakes). Naturally, Traylor the cop prefers guns even though it is loud and attention-grabbing—the opposite of his personality. The screenplay possesses a wicked sense of visual humor, too, like how the upper torso of a zombie hangs out of a window held together only by its own intestines or how certain angles of limbs that have just been chopped off look laughably fake, doll-like, mannequins.

There is an antagonist that emerges later on whose big picture reasoning makes sense but specifics are muddled. I found this to be a weak spot of the picture because his arguments are not thoroughly laid out in such a way that we are compelled to root for him, too. Instead, he is eventually reduced to a sort of mad figure who spouts nonsense.

In essence, he argues that it is not a good idea to rescue people without proper restrictions. Specifically, by welcoming outsiders—white people—nilly-willy into their indigenous community, whose members are immune to the zombie virus, it endangers everyone in the compound who have been thoroughly examined. This antagonist could have been compelling had the writer-director painted the man as a pragmatic, clear-thinking survivor all the way through. The final fifteen minutes lacks freshness.

Still, “Blood Quantum” is worth seeing for its strengths. It is consistently entertaining, intelligent, and possesses the ability to surprise from time to time. It made me curious about what other stories Barnaby has yet to tell. It is no easy feat to inject something new and exciting to an otherwise tired subgenre.

Splinter


Splinter (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★

I was surprised by the quality of this little horror film. Directed by Toby Wilkins, “Splinter” is a story about a couple going camping on their anniversary (Paulo Costanzo and Jill Wagner) and are ambushed by an escaped convict (Shea Whigham) and his girlfriend (Rachel Kerbs). Initially enemies, the two couples had to team up right away after running over a creature that feeds off human and animal blood. Not to mention that it can take over its host after it feeds off the host’s blood. I was horrified because of the way the body moved when the creature was controlling its victim’s bodies. It reminded me of the possessed girl in “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and those rabid zombies in “28 Days Later” and “28 Weeks Later.” Even though this is a small film, it was surprising how much gore it has. It goes to show that a script with smarts and a creative director can go a long way. I was also impressed by the acting. Even though I liked the “good guys” right away because they were cute and funny together, I also found myself feeling for the “bad guys” because of their circumstance. Another thing I liked about this film was that it didn’t even bother to explain where the creature came from. Most creature-feature films fall for the trap of having to elucidate why and how a monster came into existence. I was glad that this one did not. If one is a fan of horror movies where the characters are trapped in one place (in this case, in a gas station), the characters are smart but not above being silly, and there’s a plethora of effective thrills, “Splinter” is definitely the one to see. I couldn’t help but shudder (and maybe even squeal a bit) during some of the most intense scenes.