They Look Like People (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★
Many horror pictures and psychological thrillers tend to employ mental illness as a source of fear by perverting to the point where it is unrecognizable. Cue the cheap jump scares, exaggerated violence, superfluous gore, and shrill screaming. But here is a picture that belongs under these genres and yet its approach toward the subject of mental illness is entirely different. Instead of providing the audience the expected, it is willing to take numerous surprising turns. Before we know it, we wonder how it might be like if we, our friends, our loved ones suffered from schizophrenia. How would we react?
Writer-director Perry Blackshear should be proud of his first full feature film. It reminded me of Lodge Kerrigan’s highly underrated “Keane,” also about a man also struggling with schizophrenia in New York City, in that we follow the protagonist as he hears strange voices warning of people being taken over by evil, as he struggles to decide what is real and what isn’t, as he chooses certain courses of action that are downright questionable, certainly concerning. The story being told with such a deliberate slow pacing, we are put into the mind of someone who is increasingly unable to tell between the rational and irrational.
MacLeod Andrews and Evan Dumouchel are terrific as friends who find themselves in an unexpected reunion. Andrews and Dumouchel play Wyatt and Christian, respectively, the former attempting to hide his mental illness and the latter struggling to maintain a facade of masculinity. Both are afraid to be seen exactly as they are. The performers share great chemistry; we believe their characters shared a past through the many amusing, awkward, and touching occurrences that transpire in that small apartment.
We root for them to help each other out and succeed, even though they themselves are in no position to help anybody. Sometimes the meaning is in the attempt and it is beautiful how Christian and Wyatt try to navigate through what they do not fully understand. What they do understand completely, however, is that they have each other’s backs. I admired how the writer-director’s screenplay handles male friendship and the love that tethers that friendship without going for easy, cheap laughs as can be seen in a handful of independent comedy-dramas. It is not interested in going for the lowest hanging fruit.
The hallucinations are terrifying because these are handled with tact. Special and visual effects are used sparingly. Instead, we hear more curious sounds—like “ringing” of the cell phone when it is obviously turned off, voices on the other line, random scratching noises, sound of thunder when it is sunny outside—than we see ostentatious, standard horror imagery. Clearly, “They Look Like People” is a first and foremost sympathetic study of a specific abnormality of the mind than it is yet another splatter film.
★★★★ / ★★★★
The man with the scorpion jacket had three part-time jobs, not one of which fully described his isolated existence in the City of Angels. By day, he was a stuntman for action movies and a car mechanic for Shannon (Bryan Cranston), the man who gave him a job when he didn’t have any. By night, he was a getaway driver for criminals who needed the money for their own reasons. Driver (Ryan Gosling) only had one rule when it came to the heists: his clients had exactly five minutes to ransack the place and get back into the car. Whatever happened within the five-minute window, he was on their side no matter what. However, once the allotted time ran out, he was just another person in the street who kept his head down. “Drive,” based on a novel by James Sallis and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, was similar to Ethan Coen and Joel Coen’s “No Country for Old Men,” despite sporting vastly different milieus, for its control of visual style to highlight the bubbling disposition of a seemingly unemotional and reticent protagonist, punctuated use of violence, and sublime characterization through critical decision-making. When Driver met Irene (Carey Mulligan) and Benicio (Kaden Leos), her son, who lived a couple of steps from his apartment, something inside him couldn’t help but be drawn to them. Driver and Irene eventually got closer through small gestures but what they had was more friendship than romance. Driver hoped to change that. On the way to a dinner date, Irene revealed that her husband (Oscar Isaac) was about to be released from prison. As they pulled over to a stoplight, the emanated red light covered Driver’s face. Though he remained emotionless, as if the husband’s presence was no real threat to what he, Irene, and Benicio could have, the red, acting like a black light, revealed what he attempted to cover up. The return of the husband could’ve taken the picture on a cheaply maddening route by allowing Driver and Standard to become rivals, sneering at each other and testing one another’s masculinity when Irene wasn’t looking. There was none of such sitcom-like set-up. Their relationship, as tenuous as it was, surprised me because Standard seemed to really appreciate what Driver had done for his family. And he should. But his freedom had a price which thrusted the film into bloody violence. Although the violence was mesmerizing, almost having a poetic lyricism feel to it, there was an understated sadness in having to inflict pain on others for the sake for information and, if necessary, take their lives. Hossein Amini’s screenplay was admirably paradoxical. Although Driver’s motivation was to protect Irene and her son from crooks, it seemed that with each kill, he grew further from his dream of being with them rather than toward. Thus, the violence, though necessary, did not feel at all glamorous. The violence was ugly and Gosling’s angelic face, coldly calculating at times, provided an excellent contrasting template. Lastly, I admired the film’s elegance in connecting every character. Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), Shannon’s longtime pal, and Nino (Ron Perlman) were allowed to shine in the latter half. Unlike the masked bandits that hired Driver at night, their motivations were more than just about money. Like Driver, they fought for what they considered to be very important to them. And that made them as lethal as scorpions.
Thing, The (1982)
★★★ / ★★★★
In the icy landscape of Antarctica, a Siberian Husky attempted to outrun a helicopter because one of the people inside was shooting at it. When the dog arrived in an American research facility, the helicopter landed and came out a man speaking Norwegian. Nobody understood the dialect. He started shooting; Americans shot back. Everyone was baffled with how quickly everything happened and without an apparent reason. When the researchers took the dog to be with its own kind, in the dark, it revealed its true nature: inside it was an alien organism. Based on the story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr. and written by Bill Lancaster, “The Thing” deservingly gained a strong cult following over the years. It took its time in showing us the alien’s abilities and how it was able to survive for so long. It was dangerous because it seemed to have both intelligence and great survival instincts. It was capable of copying an animal in exact detail but in order to do so, it had to absorb its victims’ cells. Although the picture didn’t quite delve into specifics, it made sense because cells house DNA. Humans in a contained area were right for the picking. R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) was the helicopter pilot and the eventual leader of the group. Along with Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart), they had to figure out a way to find which of their colleagues were imitations. One of the best scenes involved MacReady and Dr. Cooper visiting the nearby Norwegian facility and finding the place in utter ruins. They saw deformed and charred human bodies as well as a hunk of ice which, from the looks of it, formerly preserved something. The grotesque and mysterious images allowed us to construct a narrative in our minds about what possibly happened. The film successfully captured a paranoid atmosphere. For instance, the camera’s attention shifted from one person to another. Characters were often in different rooms because they had jobs to do, some were on shifts depending on time of day, while others kept to themselves because certain personalities clashed. What happened to Person A when the camera was on Person B? Another element that added to the paranoia was its calculated use of score. It was able to generate so much tension by simply allowing us to hear heartbeat-like notes during key scenes. And it wasn’t only implemented when a person would walk into a dark room in an attempt to investigate something. It was used in broad daylight when danger was right around the corner. Unfortunately, I had serious issues with the film’s pacing, notably with its final thirty minutes. While it managed to maintain a certain level of creativity in terms of the build-up of who was possibly infected, once we knew, the point-and-shoot-the-flamethrower tactic became repetitive. There was nothing inspiring or surprising during the last fifteen minutes. Despite its shortcomings, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the screen. The special, visual effects, and make-up teams should be applauded for creating images found in nightmares. Directed by John Carpenter, “The Thing” is one of the few movies I feel I must watch every year. I’m hypnotized by it each time.
Wait Until Dark (1967)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Wait Until Dark,” directed by Terence Young, immediately established how venomous Roat (Alan Arkin) could be. He was a calculating man. He liked to be assured that he already won the game before even sitting down. He lured two criminals (Richard Crenna and Jack Weston) in a blind woman’s apartment and framed them as the murderers of a woman (Samantha Jones) who used an unsuspecting doll as a mule to carry heroin from Canada to the United States. But nobody could find the doll. It was of great interest to Roat so he brilliantly set up several intertwining situations and disguises in order to trick Susy (Audrey Hepburn), the blind woman, to reveal the doll’s whereabouts. In truth, Susy had no idea where the doll was or why it was so important. The picture had a wonderful script driven by memorable performances. Hepburn was sublime as a woman who was still learning how to cope with blindness after her accident a year ago. Although she doubted that she could ever be fully independent, her husband (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) pushed her to learn to look after herself. My eyes was drawn to her as she effortlessly switched from being fun and flirtatious to attempting to hide the fact that she had stumbled upon new information critical to her survival. She had the responsibility of carrying the film as she adapted slightly different temperaments with the many disguised characters who entered her apartment. She had to become more than a vulnerable blind girl surrounded by crooks, slowly learning that maybe her initial doubts of not being able to function on her own was just a sign of a bad attitude. Arkin was also wonderful as Roat. He injected a healthy dose of darkness to his character. He wore sunglasses indoors and walked around as if he was better than everybody. When Roat and Susy were inevitably the last two standing in the apartment, it was incredibly suspenseful because the position of power constantly shifted. Young’s carefully measured direction came into play when the screen would momentarily turn to black because the only source of light was a match. It was a perfect example of not seeing something being equally scary as seeing everything. There were also some scenes of comedy. A little girl named Gloria, Susy and her husband’s upstairs neighbor, was an important key in the puzzle. Despite the real danger that surrounded the building, Gloria thought it was fun and exciting that suspicious men were entering and leaving Susy’s apartment. She was just glad to be a part of it because Susy assigned her small missions like buying groceries and giving Susy signals using the telephone. “Wait Until Dark” delivered every level of suspense. I will never see a refrigerator the same way.
Eden Lake (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by James Watkins, Steven (Michael Fassbender) and Jenny (Kelly Reilly) decided to retreat to the country for a weekend of relaxation. Steven chose the place because his last visit gave him fond memories of stunning landscape and invaluable peace. But nothing was like as he remembered it. There were now gates that surrounded the area to keep people away and sociopathic teenagers scoured the vicinity. When the hoodlums, led by Brett (Jack O’Connell), stole the couple’s car, a prank turned toward a deadly route. “Eden Lake” drained every bit of energy I had because I was so desperate for the couple to escape and find their way home. Although the picture was realistic in terms of its violence, it did not glorify it. We were meant to be sickened by the teenagers’ increasingly bad decisions and maddened by the fact that none of them voiced out that what they were doing was immoral. When some of them decided to stand up to Brett, they quivered and their resistance didn’t last for long. Although a one-dimensional character, O’Connell did a wonderful job in portraying a very troubled individual. Rash and incredibly ruthless, we rooted for the moments where he made mistakes and wished that one of his errors would lead to his downfall. We didn’t need to know his life at home or if he was bulled in the past. What mattered was the decisions he made that changed the lives of those around him. It was compelling because not only was the kids’ and the couple’s situation scary, it was also very sad. Jenny, a nursery school teacher, was essentially put into a situation where she had to reevaluate her connection with the young. We left to wonder what we would do if we were in the same situation. Personally, if someone is trying to kill me, good luck to them because gender and age become irrelevant. However, there were some pieces that bothered me. For instance, when Steven, prior to being captured, told Jenny to ask for help: What did she decide to do? She hid in the bushes, slept it off, and didn’t even look for help until morning arrived. In a life or death situation, I am convinced that no one will be able to sleep. It may be dark and the person may be tired but if I was in her shoes, I would have ran until I saw civilization. Even then I wouldn’t trust the people who decided to help because the kids had to live somewhere nearby. Despite the material’s occasional lack of common sense, I enjoyed it because it was successful in generating tension and holding onto it until the payoff. “Eden Lake” knew the difference between suspense and thrill. It was suspenseful when we were left squirming in our seats and wondering if our protagonists were going to get caught. It was thrilling when Character A was running from Character B and the latter knew exactly which direction the former was heading. The best scenes were the ones where I felt chill running up and down my spine.
Disappearance of Alice Creed, The (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
The first five minutes of “The Disappearance of Alice Creed,” written and directed by J Blakeson, observed from a distance how two men prepared to kidnap an unsuspecting Alice (Gemma Arterton). I immediately thought there was something strange with how the kidnappers paid particular attention in preparing the woman’s bed. Did they want her to feel comfortable so they would feel less guilt? Did they personally know her? Were they doing it for the money or was it simply to hurt someone who was close to her? Vic (Eddie Marsan) was the more methodical of the two criminals. He knew exactly what he wanted and how to achieve them. Danny (Martin Compston), on the other hand, seemed to follow orders without question. What I found most impressive about the film was I didn’t care much about Alice (or whether she would make it out alive) yet I was always fascinated with what was happening. For me, the driving force of the picture was Danny and Vic’s complicated and volatile relationship. When Danny’s loyalty began to stray, there was an unrelenting tension because we knew that Vic was very intelligent and much more dangerous. Vic was huge in stature, had a booming voice, and his calculating nature made him a predator. Danny was a bit lanky, inclined to whisper, and his transparent lies made me wince. He was under Vic’s control and I desperately wanted him to untangle himself. But how could he when he was stuck in the apartment as much as the victim? In a way, he was also a prisoner. There were a handful of twists that I didn’t see coming. However, the twists didn’t feel at all gimmicky. Since Vic and Danny had to be secretive while performing their job, keeping quiet as often as possible, I was able to learn a lot about them with the way they responded to situations that weren’t in their favor. Just when I thought they would react one way, they took a different route and surprised me. I wished that Alice was more likable because I wanted to root for all of them. When I’m torn in several directions, I find myself that much more emotionally involved. Instead, I thought she was devoid of charm, whiny, and spoiled. She needed to be more resourceful in her attempt to wriggle herself out of the two crooks’ plan. The majority of “The Disappearance of Alice Creed” took place in an apartment, but it was as suspenseful as globetrotting adventures of the same breed because of the constantly evolving power play between the three characters. Unlike most movies about kidnapping, the film didn’t rely on the question of whether or not Alice would make it out alive. It challenged itself by observing who could handle the most pressure when the situation arrived at a tipping point.
What Lies Beneath (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
After Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Norman (Harrison Ford) dropped their daughter (Katharine Towne) off to college, strange things started to occur in their lakeside Vermont home. After hearing her neighbor (Miranda Otto) cry while tending the garden and the woman suddenly disappeared the next day, Claire was convinced that the wife was murdered by her husband (James Remar). Claire concluded that she was being haunted by the wife’s ghost. But was there really a ghost or was it simply that were we watching a woman with a fractured mind? After all, there were some memories she didn’t have access to because she had been involved in a major car accident a year before. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, “White Lies Beneath” had a very suspenseful first half. The camera was almost always fixated on Claire as she moved about the house. We saw the story through her eyes so every time she turned a corner and someone (or something) happened to be there (or worse, when we saw some weird happenings behind her through a mirror), we, like her, couldn’t help but react. The scares were earned. There were some eerie scenes such as when the dog wouldn’t go into the water to fetch his favorite toy and when Claire decided to spy on the man of the house next door in order to gather some sort of evidence that he killed his wife. The scene with the Ouija board was also a stand-out because the characters acknowledged the ridiculousness of the situation. It was funny, but it generated uneasy laughs because perhaps there really was a ghost. Sadly, the second half was convoluted. Cheap false alarms were abound and the explanation regarding the supernatural left something more to be desired. I also had a big problem with Ford’s acting. When he expressed his many frustrations regarding his wife’s obsession, I felt like I was watching a play. Ford’s tendency to overact did not complement Pfeiffer’s more natural approach despite the fact that she felt like she was dealing with the paranormal. Thankfully, the movie was saved by the truly scary bathtub scene in which the paralyzed Claire awaited the water to rise until she could no longer breathe. The silence was menacing. We could hear every drop of water and feel Claire’s determination to survive. “What Lies Beneath” was eviscerated by critics upon its release. It may have its weak points but I stand by the picture because of its more classic approach to the scares and references to Alfred Hitchcock’s repertoire. Compared to most horror pictures of the mid- to late 2000s, which were mostly uninspired, this movie was able to deliver good scares without relying on blood.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Violet (Jennifer Tilly) and Corky (Gina Gershon) met in an elevator. They eyed each other despite the fact that Violet’s boyfriend Caesar (Joe Pantoliano), who worked for the mob, was right there with them. Violet knocked on Corky’s door, offering her a cup of coffee. Their romance started off like a bad porno movie, Corky being a mechanic and all. Violet confessed to Corky she wanted to escape the mob life so both concocted a plan to steal two million dollars from the mob and pin it on Caesar. The film was a success because it relied on very strong writing and three superb performances. Gershon epitomized seduction. She had a perfect balance of the feminine and the masculine. Pantoliano was sublime as a raging bull–the masculine figure. Tilly, the feminine, was funny, sexy, and compelling in every frame. I’ve seen her in many independent features and I believe she’s more than capable of mainstream success because she’s such a wonderful actress. “Bound” wore its modern noir tone on its sleeve; it rivaled Ethan Coen and Joel Coen’s “Blood Simple.” in terms of nail-biting tension that never lets go until the final shot and Quentin Taratino’s “Pulp Fiction” in terms of complex characters with questionable morals and multilayered motivations. It was able to do a lot with a simple shot. For instance, I’ve never seen a gun sliding through white paint looked more elegant and beautiful. The lesbian eroticism may attract some but may repel others. Some could argue it had elements of sexploitation, which I don’t necessarily disagree with. But my counterargument is that the picture did not show anything offensive. It may offend certain individuals either due to homophobia or fear of sexuality in general, but I perceived the images through a feminist scope. For me, it was about two women who had complete control of their wills and bodies. I would even go as far to say that the sex and seduction scenes were necessary because the picture depended so much on the trust between Violet and Corky. Their attraction with one another was the reason we wanted them to get away with stealing without losing any finger, or worse, their lives. Written and directed by Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski, “Bound” was a ferocious and unpredictable neo-noir thriller. I loved how it prevented me from thinking ahead because I was so engaged with what was currently happening on screen. That is, how the characters could possibly extricate themselves from an increasingly hopeless and dangerous situation. I suppose two million dollars had to be earned but at what cost?
★★★ / ★★★★
An isolated town in the middle of the desert with a population of 14 had to deal with giant worms attracted to anything that caused a vibration above ground. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward star as two friends with a couple of odd jobs. They liked to joke around, talk about women, and make silly decisions based upon rock, paper, scissors. But after finding a dead body and stumbling upon man-eating worms, they had to toughen up and warn the town that they soon would be up for the picking. What I liked most about this movie was its self-awareness. It knew that the concept was silly so did not take itself too seriously. Instead, it took advantage of our lack of knowledge about the organism. Initially, we had no idea how the worms looked like and their capabilities. As the picture went on, as the characters began to struggle for survival, surprisingly, the worms started to smarten up and plan in order to capture their prey. The characters were then forced to get creative in two fronts: How to get away from the worms and how to destroy them. My favorite scenes were the ones where the characters were given the chance to have a closer look at the creatures. I constantly had a sneaky feeling that those worms weren’t really dead, that perhaps they were smart enough to pretend. It gave me the creeps because I just have a disgust for anything that resemble worms or snakes. I also highly enjoyed the scenes with Reba McEntire and Michael Gross as a couple who had a penchant for collecting firearms. Unlike horror movies, especially zombie and slasher flicks, I noticed that the writers did not allow their characters to argue with each other like there was no tomorrow. Time was of the essence and the importance of teamwork was consistently highlighted for survival. I also noticed a low number of false alarms which is atypical for horror pictures, even horror-comedies. Since it wasn’t the norm, it made me feel uneasy in a good way. I felt like I was always on my toes, which was a great sign because it meant that I was engaged. I enjoyed the material because it surprised me in many ways and I felt like the filmmakers and actors had fun while making the picture. Kudos to the special effects and make-up team for creating the disgusting worm guts. “Tremors,” directed by Ron Underwood, achieved cult status and understandably so. With its B-movie premise and tone of silliness, it was easy dismiss. However, it was undeniably fast-paced, energetic, adventurous and farcical. It’s one of those movies that can brighten up one’s night during an uneventful weekend.
★★★ / ★★★★
The original plan was for Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), a photographer, to take Sam Wynden (Whitney Able), his boss’ daughter, from Mexico to the United States via a ferry because the land between the two countries were infested with giant octopus-like aliens. But after Kaulder and Sam had a night out of drinking and celebration, Kaulder ended up taking another woman to his motel room. The next morning, when Kaulder wasn’t looking, the woman stole some money including Sam’s passport, a requirement in order for her to get aboard the boat. “Monsters” was an effective science fiction film despite its small budget because it had a solid hold on its tone. The first forty minutes focused on the flirtation and possible romantic connection between the two protagonists. Even though Sam claimed she was engaged, it was apparent that she enjoyed Kaulder’s advances. When he suggested that he stayed on her bed because it was big enough for the two of them, she hesitated for a moment before sending him off his way. The rest of the picture’s running time was dedicated to their nail-biting journey across the infected land. Initially, they were protected by men with guns but we knew that they were simply there as bait. When they heard a strange noise from a distance, it was only a matter of time until the aliens came out from the shadows that hid them so well. I believe the film was highly influenced by Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park.” Kaulder and Sam were always stuck in some sort of a vehicle as they were forced to observe the carnage. A small sound could potentially capture the aliens’ attention and so I caught myself holding my breath for them and hoped that they wouldn’t err. Furthermore, there was a scene set in a gas station that was very reminiscent of the children’s encounter with velociraptors in Spielberg’s sci-fi classic. We even had a chance to learn about how the aliens reproduced. It was horrifying. I felt like a child again; the feeling was similar to when I found out that if a worm was cut in half, the halves could survive and regenerate. (The concept still feels alien to me.) The extraterrestrials did get close to the characters but the filmmakers made a smart decision to not allow the creatures to catch up on them to the point where a human and alien would make contact. For a human to escape a giant alien equipped with sensitive feelers and great force would have been too unbelievable. It was all about the escape and the moments in which the characters believed that it might have been over for them. I understand some people’s disappointment about the film’s lack of CGI, gore, and explosions. That’s exactly why I enjoyed it. It was proof that those elements weren’t necessary to make an effective science fiction film as long as it has a wild imagination combined with a human story.
★★★ / ★★★★
Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), a truck driver, woke up in a wooden coffin underground. All he could remember was the fact that he and his fellow U.S. contractors were ambushed by a group of Iraqis. Believing that he was a soldier, Paul was contacted via a cell phone by one of the kidnappers named Jabir (voiced by José Luis García Pérez) who wanted five million dollars in exchange for Paul’s freedom. Written by Chris Sparling and directed by Rodrigo Cortés, “Buried” is one of the more effective films about a character being stuck in one place and facing a battle against time. In this instance, with each passing second, Paul’s source of oxygen was steadily being depleted. The picture’s main challenge was to keep its audiences engaged for the entire running time. I thought it didn’t have a problem with keeping us at the edge of our seats. After Paul learned about his situation, he responded like a normal person: fear, anger, and confusion appeared all at once. We were left in absolute horror and wondered how he could possibly get out of the coffin with only a lighter, a small knife, a candle, a flashlight, and a cell phone. I didn’t always agree with Paul’s decisions but there was no doubt that I wanted him to get out of there. For example, he called people who didn’t have the power or authority to do anything about his increasingly desperate situation. Then he would yell or scream at them if they couldn’t do anything to help. Perhaps he knew that. But he called anyway because he needed someone to talk to since his family in the United States wouldn’t answer his calls. Being in a state of terror can lead us to do things that don’t make much sense. Or perhaps it was out of convenience because the writer wanted to poke fun of the ridiculous bureaucracies that are supposedly aimed to protect its people. But what completely failed to work for me were the crane shots of Paul lying in a coffin. It happened more than once and I was taken out of the moment each time. For the majority of the time, there was wood a few inches from Paul’s face and it was weird to see it suddenly disappear when such a shot was taken. Some level of tension was lost. There were other inconsistencies such as the main character knowing that the burning of a candle required oxygen (he must have paid attention in Chemistry), yet he kept screaming to the top of his lungs from frustration. Nevertheless, the highly effective thrills made up for the film’s missteps. It may not look like much but I thought it was ambitious because we spent the entire time in the coffin yet we were consistently entertained. Most mainstream projects have proven that minimalism is difficult to pull off. But when it’s done right, as “Buried” has shown, it can do wonders.