Tag: stephen king

In the Tall Grass


In the Tall Grass (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Cal, where are you? …Becky?! …CAL?? …I’M HERE, BECKY! …WHERE ARE YOU??? …OVER HERE! …WHERE??? If watching and listening to people get lost in a field for over half the film is your idea of entertainment, then “In the Tall Grass,” based on the novella by Stephen King and written for the screen by Vincenzo Natali (who also directs), receives a most enthusiastic recommendation. But should you demand more from a horror film with a curious concept surrounding a piece of land with supernatural powers then stay far away. Spearheaded by an undercooked and misguided screenplay, there is no reason for this movie to be over thirty minutes, let alone a hundred minutes. It is an experience to be endured.

The best horror stories that just so happen to possess science fiction elements tend to have one thing in common: the rules are so watertight that although we are aware of them, we are entertained when they are broken or if they happen to come with crucial footnotes. By providing the audience a set of rules, there is an unwritten contract between the film and the audience. We are tasked to participate. We know, or think we know, what we are in for and so there is a higher chance for us to believe in the universe the filmmakers put forth.

This soulless, brainless, lazy film, on the other hand, is not concerned whether the audience has understanding of the rules. Its approach is to muddle the playing field so often and so brazenly that we find ourselves blindsided by the would-be brilliant twists. I found not one of them to be compelling; in fact, when examined using the picture’s own logic, these fail to make sense.

The opening scene shows siblings Becky (Laysla De Oliviera) and Cal (Avery Whitted) driving to San Diego. Becky is very pregnant and nauseous and so Cal pulls over next to a field facing a church. They hear a boy’s voice (Will Buie Jr.) from the tall grass, begging for help since he is unable to find the way toward the road. It sounds as if he’s been there for hours. Becky and Cal decide to lend a hand, but they, too, find themselves in the same predicament once they are among the grass. They get separated. It seems impossible for them to find one another because the source of their voices does not remain in one spot—even when they are standing still. They become convinced something is terribly wrong. Day turns into night and the supposedly horrific happenings continue. We grow tired of this formula even before the second act begins.

Eventually, we learn there is a mysterious stone in the middle of the field. A father (Patrick Wilson) who also got separated from his family claims that it is ancient, perhaps already there even before the earliest Ice Age. He has touched the stone and is stimulated every time he makes physical contact with it. There are carvings on the stone, but notice that the camera provides only a millisecond glimpse of them. You see, the images hint at what might happen later on should our subjects continue to make terrible mistakes regarding their situation. These carvings are only shown fully once the characters are at their lowest points. This choice, and others like it, stands out to me because it reeks of the filmmakers’ lack of confidence in the material. Or worse:

It is assumed that the audience are idiots, or that we have never seen a horror movie where curious figures actually prove to be important. The correct choice is to show the carvings front and center outright. Once we are equipped with this knowledge, tension is generated almost immediately because we wish for the characters to avoid what appears to be their fates. The lack of common sense from behind the camera is astounding. I found no willingness to embrace creativity from a storytelling point of view. In fact, the work feels like a bad TV movie.

But this isn’t to suggest the material is not without potential. There are hints surrounding the protective brother, Cal, possibly loving his sister, Becky, as more than a sister. It is not unimportant that the mysterious field just so happens to be situated in front of a church (according to the sign its entire name is “The Church of the Black Rock of the Redeemer”). Those who get lured in the field, with the exception of the boy, possess qualities that could be considered sinful. However, not one of these ideas is explored in a meaningful way. The movie would rather show visual effects of grass moving on their own, the sky turning blood red, corpses in various states of decay—CGI of the poorest quality.

It: Chapter Two


It: Chapter Two (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

For a movie with elaborate set pieces and a willingness to experiment with different types of horror, “It: Chapter Two” is only entertaining parts. Perhaps the problem can be attributed to Gary Dauberman’s screenplay. It spends far too much time communicating how the Losers, now adults (James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Hader, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean), have become traumatized from their encounters with Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård) twenty-seven years ago. Not one of their plight is particularly compelling or original and so it is a curiosity why the material feels the need to spell out the psychological underpinnings of their behaviors. I found it needlessly expository.

The opening scene is most promising because it underscores the idea that people around us can be just as evil—if not more—as the supernatural kind. A romantic date is turned into something so awful, the events linger in the mind for a while. One is led to believe, if one is not familiar with the source material, that perhaps we will learn, in detail, about Pennywise’s history, why he—or it—is driven to terrorize this particular town. Is it solely for its own survival or are the people’s behavior in this place (homophobia, racism, xenophobia) directly tethered to his bloody rampage? However, as the film goes on, we learn only one bit of critical information about the villain. Pennywise is pushed to the side until climactic special and visual effects extravaganza.

It is not without good performances. Hader stands out as Richie, a man with a secret, whose life is so sad and lonely that he became a comedian in order to utilize humor as armor. I am familiar with Hader’s more dramatic roles but never have I seen him as effective as he is here. At times I caught myself looking in his direction while sharing the same frame as powerhouses like Chastain and McAvoy—highly efficient performers who can do next to nothing and yet remain in control of the screen. It helps that Hader gets some of the best lines. He sells every single one with conviction; we believe this character exists out there in the world. An argument can be made he is the heart of the film.

The movie offers fewer terrifying moments than the predecessor. Part of it is because we are following adults instead of children; there is a natural instinct for us to want to protect children and get them out of harm’s way. But the more interesting part is a lack of effective build-up to the scares. I can think of one exception: Beverly’s return to her childhood home when she is welcomed by the current tenant, an elderly lady whose father joined the circus. Other than this standout, a deliciously devious sequence, the rest of the Losers’ encounters with their pasts feel as though these were taken from other generic made-for-TV horror pictures.

Of particular annoyance is the numerous hallucinatory sequences. I felt as though these comprise the majority of the second act. Sharp writers should recognize that events surrounding hallucinations suffer greatly from diminishing returns. And yet it remains adamant in employing this approach without sudden, genuinely shocking left turns to keep us invested.

Both “It” chapters are based on Stephen King’s novel. His works are notorious for being a challenge to put on screen so that the movie is just as effective or even better than its source material. It is because many of his work are so pregnant with imagination that even the most expensive special and visual effects are not able to match the images formed in our minds. Despite the yelling, screaming for help, and terrorized expressions, “Chapter Two” feels like just another scary movie. It is a disappointment because “Chapter One” is a killer springboard.

Pet Sematary


Pet Sematary (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

The second reimagining of Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” is better than the first—but not by much. It is composed of the same mistakes that modern horror movies tend to make: a noticeable score designed to tell the audience what to think and how to feel, silly jump scares that can be predicted beat by beat, laughable instead of genuinely horrifying violence, and a rushed final act that offers minimal catharsis. The viewer is likely to walk away feeling cheated because of the generic nature of the experience.

I found the exposition to be safe but tolerable. Hoping to spend more time with their children, Louis (Jason Clarke) and Rachel (Amy Seimetz) decide to uproot their family and start anew in rural Maine, away from the hustle and bustle of Boston. In Ludlow, Louis will work in a clinic instead of a hospital while Rachel will stay home with the kids. But when the family cat, Church, dies in an accident, their friendly neighbor, Jud (John Lithgow), has an idea: to bury the cat in the woods where the land has a reputation of bringing the dead back to life. About a third of the way through, although the pacing is slow, each step is purposeful. There is a sense of foreboding. We even learn about Rachel’s relationship with death, particularly the guilt and trauma that linger in her regarding her sister’s passing.

However, once the typical horror elements begin to take over the plot, especially those normally found in slasher movies, the picture falls apart. One gets the impression that screenwriter Jeff Buhler has failed to find true inspiration and so he decides to utilize shortcuts as a substitute. The dead coming back to life should be a terrifying notion, especially if these beings are able to retain their memories and the ability to communicate. Already they are different from zombies who only wish to bite flesh and eat brains. Instead, there is more attention placed in the running around, the stabbings, and the struggles of getting to a weapon. It all just feels so tired and pointless.

There are watchable performances here by Clarke, Seimetz, and Lithgow. The actors who play husband and wife are believable in that the more recent changes in their lives are not easy for either of them. And yet they try to make it work. The widower, too, is a curious character. When he is finally invited for dinner, we feel his joy of being welcomed by the family, including the cat. However, the enthusiastic yet grounded performances still fail to save a screenplay lacking both strong vision and fresh execution. The entire work must be effective as a horror picture above all.

“Pet Sematary” is directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer in a most pedestrian fashion, especially when it comes to the scares. If anything, precisely because the work is both based on a book and a remake of an overrated would-be classic, every second should be dedicated to surpassing them. Instead, it appears to be content in delivering familiar tropes that lack imagination and tension. It feels like another cash grab.

The Dark Tower


The Dark Tower (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

For a source material filled with incredible imagination by Stephen King, drawing inspiration from old-school fantasy to spaghetti western, “The Dark Tower,” directed by Nikolaj Arcel, is a crushing disappointment. Instead of taking risks and really going for the violence and the bizarre, it is diluted and made safe for the sake of mainstream consumption. What results is a marginally interesting story about a boy with the Shine, or psychic powers (an allusion to King’s “The Shining”), named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) discovering another world through his dreams, but the execution lacks energy and long-term intrigue. The protagonists strive to save the universe from annihilation and yet we do not care whether they would make it to the next scene. The screenplay requires major revisions.

Stories of epic scales are defined by the antagonist. Here, it is the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), wielding powers so astounding that he is able to take someone’s life simply by willing it. And yet for a villain who possesses such ability, Walter is a bore. He walks around in his black clothes barely showing any emotion, but there is no air of mystery about him. We learn nothing about his past or background or anything he might value. We learn of his goal about wishing to destroy the titular tower and why, but this is not enough to create a compelling character worth looking into.

The same critique can be applied to one of the main protagonists, a Gunslinger, the last of his kind, named Roland Deschain (Idris Elba). Like McConaughey, Elba is a charming performer who can usually communicate paragraphs simply by looking or controlling his body language a certain way. We learn that Roland is great with guns and cares about the boy from Earth, but what else is there to him? Both antagonist and protagonist are given superficial characteristics, but they are hollow inside. Discerning viewers will note that the performances are wooden; the actors look bored in their roles.

Special and visual effects are occasionally impressive—but only when it is willing to show the griminess of Mid-World, how unforgiving it can become at a moment’s notice. This is why the attack in the village and the scene in the woods stand out. For a couple of minutes, we feel on our tiptoes the wonder and foreboding nature of the alternate universe. Literally, it is the stuff out of one’s dreams. By comparison, the battle between the Gunslinger and the Man in Black in the end is laughable, looking more like a video game in the early-2000s by the second. There is a lack of urgency to this would-be climactic sequence.

If there is going to be an unlikely sequel, and I do want one, the writers need to make a decision that is right for the material. Perhaps most importantly, the content on screen needs to match the level of imagination and the willingness to take risks emanating from King’s “Dark Tower” series. Establishing and building lore is just as important as constructing thrilling action sequences, if not more. Because in order for us to care about what is unfolding, we must understand the worlds, their rules, and the beings who reside in them. Only then could we get a glimpse of their motivations. I did, however, enjoy the casting of Taylor because he seems capable of delivering more than what is on paper.

It: Chapter One


It: Chapter One (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Superior horror pictures attempt to pummel their audience into submission, whether it be in terms of providing consistent, well-earned scares or delivering an inescapable sense of foreboding through carefully calibrated atmosphere. Rarer still are those that employ both. These approaches do wonders to the latest interpretation of Stephen King’s “It,” this time based on the screenplay by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, as it provides the requisite chills to render the viewer wide-eyed from terror and yet remain most curious as to what might happen to the young spirited protagonists and whether they would find a way to rid of the evil that plagues their small town.

Credit to the casting by Rich Delia for finding seven performers (Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs, Wyatt Oleff) who not only fit the ‘80s milieu but also effortlessly embody how it is like to be an outcast. Here is one of the strongest cast in horror films in quite some time. Each person is able to carry his or her own when it comes to both gasp-inducing encounters with Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård) and moments of dramatic gravity designed to highlight each young teenager’s backstory. To top it all off, every one of them conveys a specific personality and temperament. By the end of this chapter, we appreciate each individual character and we know why he or she is a critical piece of the Losers Club.

Notice how its scares command range. Inferior horror movies tend to rely on one trick—jump scares, for example—to get a reaction from us. On the other hand, observe how scenes unscrew and unfold in this particular work. It is patient, willing to take its time for tension to take root before getting to the punchline. And when it finally gets to the punchline… sometimes it goes on. We grow uneasy or are rendered off-balanced because lazy horror films that many of us have gotten accustomed to simply move onto the next scene once the scare is revealed. Certain images that stuck with me are those of Pennywise laying or standing still when his victim has found a way to escape. I admired how the camera manages to capture a personification of evil and how willing it is to show us one of its faces.

In horror pictures, I think it is so important to establish a sense of mythos, especially when the story involves a haunting in house or a small town. It is a way of engaging us and making us want to know more about a specific story with a specific setting, to care about what is going to happen next. Although the material does not drill too deeply in Derry’s questionable history, given that it is in fact the first half of the whole piece, it provides the necessary seeds for further exploration. Images shown in books and newspaper articles are appropriately strange and creepy. When the historian of the group sits in the town library to peruse old pages, I found myself wanting to join him and read up on what they are up against.

Teeming with effective nightmare imagery, “It: Chapter One,” directed by Andy Muschietti, provides an unsettling experience. It is so confident in supplying comedy right next to moments that may likely go horribly awry, vice-versa. The result is an exciting, thrilling, and unpredictable picture—one that has solid replay value. Here is a great example on how to make a mainstream horror film without the unnecessary and cheap flourishes that overrun disappointments within the genre. It understands that the genre requires a high level of craft.

Thinner


Thinner (1996)
★ / ★★★★

While driving home from a celebratory dinner, an overweight lawyer named Billy Halleck (Robert John Burke) ran over an old gypsy woman by accident. Enraged that the case was so apparently fixed that Billy was allowed to walk away as if nothing had happened, the old woman’s son (Michael Constantine) walks up to Billy, brushes his cheek, and whispers the word “thinner.” Soon, the three-hundred-pound attorney begins to lose weight at an accelerated weight: fourteen pounds in seven days then over forty pounds just after two weeks. Although Billy eats ten thousand to twelve thousand calories per day, there seems to be no stopping his sudden weight loss.

Based on the novel by Stephen King, “Thinner” has the potential to really hone in and comment on the moral decay of a person in the form of horrific happenings that surround him, but instead settles on telling a freak-of-the-week story which runs out of steam about halfway through its already short running time. Although the protagonist is well-acted by Burke, the screenplay is severely malnourished in dimension and depth that it really is not all that interesting to sit through let alone think about afterward.

Burke is convincing in playing a man carrying extra weight. The initial scenes may be off-putting because the padding and the makeup are so obvious, but when these elements are taken away—reflecting Billy’s weight loss—there is a performance worth watching. For instance, because the shedding of the pounds happens so quickly, Burke makes the decision to hold onto Billy’s gait. That is, the character’s walk remains waddle-like, still sort of slow instead of brisk and straight. His body may have transformed but everything else has not changed.

The execution of the story is supremely elementary. Eventually, Billy begins to suspect that his wife (Elizabeth Franz) may be having an affair. Aside from one or two shots accompanied by a few words, this suspicion is never explored in either a dramatic or tension-filled manner. Instead, it comes off as flat, a mere tool to be used later on so that it may help to create a semblance of completion. Imagine the most forgettable episodes of the anthology television series “Goosebumbps.” These tend to follow a specific track and lays out all the clues within the first ten minutes. It is like that here, only the clues are laid out in about half an hour.

There is no character worth rooting for. Though both Billy and the gypsies have something to be angry about, Michael McDowell and Tom Holland’s screenplay fails to move beyond one camp trying to make the other miserable. It comes off so childish that I grew bored by the so-called conflict. In the middle of all the commotion, I started to question why the picture was not more fun. This is because the material, aside from its premise, is devoid of imagination.

Directed by Tom Holland, “Stephen King’s Thinner” is not camp enough to be amusing and not scary enough to be a full-fledged horror film. It tries to be entertaining, I guess, with all the bad makeup and overacting by the supporting players but such techniques are crutches of movies with a weak core. I may not have read the author’s novel but I would like to believe that it is more witty, ironic, and darkly comic than this dross.

The Running Man


The Running Man (1987)
★★ / ★★★★

Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger), member of the military, was sent to prison because he wouldn’t follow orders to kill a group of women and children protesting for food. But when he broke out of prison, an edited video was released to the public in which Ben was portrayed to have killed the innocent civilians. Out of desperation, he took Amber (Maria Conchita Alonso) hostage to seek refuge in Hawaii. Ben’s escape was unsuccessful, but his story caught the attention of Damon Killian (Richard Dawson), a host of the most popular game on television. In order to restore his reputation, Ben must compete in the gladiator-style show and defeat assassins collectively known as The Stalkers (Professor Toru Tanaka, Gus Rethwisch, Erland van Lidth, Jim Brown, Jesse Ventura). Based on a short story by Stephen King, “The Running Man” had a fascinating prediction involving the future of American culture reflected by what was shown on television but the execution did not match the story’s ambition. Although Schwarzenegger had the body for the role, I wasn’t convinced he had the talent, acting-wise, to deliver the depth and complexity in his character. If Schwarzenegger was only allowed to stand and look tough, it might have worked out. Unfortunately, he was required to speak such as giving orders to his teammates, expressing anger, balancing incredulousness and frustration. I felt like his one-liners cheapened the material. The “I’ll be back” line was obviously a reference to James Cameron’s “The Terminator.” It was unnecessary. Others were supposed to serve as comic relief, but there were far too many of them. I was completely taken out of the experience of being in their world. What I liked, however, was the way the camera switched between the battle scenes and the audiences’ reactions. The audiences were supposed to reflect us: rich, poor, black, white, young, and old. The point was all groups craved some sort of violence. I interpreted the game show audiences as individuals who supported capital punishment and thereby accepting the innate hypocrisy within the system. I found the audiences’ reactions interesting and disturbing. It was acceptable for The Running Man, people who had to battle their way through obstacles, to die because they supposedly have committed crimes, mostly murder, despite the lack of concrete evidence. Images on television were enough to persuade everyone. However, it was considered a tragedy for a Stalker, also committing murder, to perish. There was an interesting mix of tongue-and-cheek and cynicism in the way the audiences’ loyalty shifted from one end to another when certain lies were exposed. It highlighted the power of television and most people’s inability (or laziness) to think critically. Unfortunately, the screenplay’s third act was frustratingly, maddeningly weak. The film’s message turned into something it was supposed to be fighting against. That is, the answer to violence is more violence. Instead of leaving us with real insight regarding the role of television in our lives, “The Running Man,” directed by Paul Michael Glaser, took the easily digestible path. I felt like what I put into the film was significantly more than what I had gotten back.