Archive for the ‘horror’ category

Morbius

June 20, 2022

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You never know which movie will attract the derisive affection of the internet meme lords. Take Morbius, an unadventurous and dull movie based on a character in Marvel comics. Since Sony owns Morbius, this isn’t considered an MCU movie like, say, Dr. Strange or Thor; it belongs to the same universe that spawned Venom, and at one point our troubled hero, Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto), jokingly identifies himself as such. Anyway, the internet hates Leto and hates lazy-looking wannabe franchises like Morbius, so the movie became a target for ironic social-media memes. Apparently someone at Sony noticed that Morbius was being talked about, albeit with a gibe and a sneer, and decided to re-release the film, hoping for gobs of those ironic ticket sales. It didn’t get them — its re-release take was substantially less than the cost of a small house — and it shuffled morosely off to DVD shortly thereafter.

What we find here, after all that, is a not-bad, not-good, not-much-of-anything time-waster in which Jared Leto, against all odds, does not make me want to throttle him. He’s swift and mordant as Dr. Morbius, who has a rare blood disease and develops a formula that turns him into a “living vampire.” Morbius so happens to have invented artificial blood, which he can drink in lieu of real human blood, but its effects don’t last long and soon he’s swooping around New York City as a swirling purple cloud. Just like a bat does. See, the formula comes from bat DNA, and … ah, hell, nobody ever went to these movies for scientific rigor. And when Morbius’ similarly afflicted old friend Milo (Matt Smith) takes the serum, he becomes a monster who doesn’t care at all if he has to kill to survive. 

The problem here isn’t the acting; although Milo is given the sort of boilerplate villain dialogue you can instinctively recite along with him, Matt Smith commits to it, and so do Adria Arjona as Morbius’ lab associate and Jared Harris as the doctor who’s been trying to treat Morbius and Milo since they were kids. Harris’ clinic for this rare blood disease, by the way, is in Greece. I wondered why Greece, since it isn’t really a plot point, and in any case the Greece scenes were shot in England, like the rest of the movie. Wondering about this probably distracted me from the plot intricacies, but the key template here is the Marvel-comic one where someone good becomes powerful and has to stop someone bad who becomes powerful. Now and then the film makes gestures towards meaning when Morbius agonizes over the violent mercenaries he had to kill and swears never to do it again. This seems sort of wan and beside the point when the Deadpool movies, for instance, have its hero slaughtering willy-nilly, and nobody ever seriously pretended Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine never used those sharp pigstickers of his lethally.

Milo seems to have been made a killer solely so that Morbius can be blamed for it by two ineffectual cops. Prior to gaining his powers, Milo doesn’t seem the type to flip over into the ultimate evil, but he flips, all right, with no moral shading or regret. Milo is supposed to represent the untrammeled nastiness Morbius could sink to if he doesn’t watch out. I would’ve cut out the middle man and made Morbius himself the shadow that haunts him; why else turn a vampire into a superhero? Morbius has a poor chance of getting a sequel, even though they try to set one up with the reveal of a freshly vampirized character with whom Morbius will duke it out in Morbius 2: Electric Morbaloo. Again, the movie is only bland and unpersuasive, and would have disappeared without a trace if not for the jolly internet memes that snarkily celebrated it, as though it were a lovably inept thing to be cherished, not chastised, for its flaws. 

X

April 17, 2022

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A work of art or entertainment can have a lot on its mind and under its hood, but if you don’t like it, you don’t like it, and no amount of sophisticated subtext is going to make you like it. Which brings us to Ti West’s X, a nasty retro slasher film, set in 1979 and indebted to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as well as to a number of ‘70s porn flicks. X conflates sex and violence in an almost comically obvious way; it’s about a small crew of porn filmmakers who go to a remote location and get picked off gorily one by one, but not before they’ve plied their trade. So in a way, the movie is a meta commentary on the fuck-and-die motif that distinguished (if that is the word) many slasher flicks in the ‘80s. It feels almost as if West intends it as a minimalist distillation of slasher and porn tropes: Here, this is what all those gross-out and skin flicks were getting at all along.

I suppose part of the meta joke is that X doesn’t really deliver either as horror or as sexploitation. West and cinematographer Eliot Rockett stage the porn-making scenes unimaginatively, and the murder scenes, when they eventually come, follow suit. X is a slow burn, though it starts with a flash-forward to the police nosing around the bloody crime scene, as though West were saying “Yes, the first half of the movie is a lot of talk and hanging out, but don’t worry, gory stuff is coming.” And it does, but I found I didn’t care about the victims any more than I cared about the psycho fodder in, say, Friday the 13th Part 3. 

The camera really only has eyes for Maxine (Mia Goth), a young porn actress with ambitions of being a star, whose freckles seem to come and go depending on the scene. Maxine is set up as the Final Girl, but she’s not especially likable or smart or … anything, really. Maxine’s psyching herself up in a mirror is perhaps a nod to Boogie Nights, and if we remember that film we know that X’s setting in 1979 is heavily ironic: Home video would soon turn porn into what it always really only was, jerkoff fodder, and the concept of porn “stars” more or less died. (I think the last adult-film performer whose name crossed over into mainstream consciousness was Stormy Daniels.) So Maxine is heading for a future in videos with titles like Dirty Texas Sluts, Vol. 17. 

We can tell that Ti West wants X to be taken more seriously than the rotgut splatterthons whose aesthetic it plunders. That’s apparent in the first half’s sense of melancholy, its tonal lip service towards the sadnesses of age, the lost freedom of youth. A lot of the film seems to meditate on the sexual frustration of an elderly woman, Pearl, who with her husband owns the property where the porn crew are filming. Maxine finds Pearl’s sexual (and, it appears, bisexual) neediness pathetic and disgusting, and the movie seconds her. One can’t really divide the audience’s sympathies in what’s supposed to be a slasher throwback; you end up cancelling out any sympathy. I won’t say horror movies should be nice, or even politically correct, but if we’re to care about a character it’d help if that character didn’t invite our disdain, either by ageist bigotry or by murderous brutality. In brief, the movie’s take on sexuality among the elderly is that, however gently Pearl’s longing is framed, codger sex is creepy and gross. 

In a movie where people are pitchforked, fed to a gator, and generally roughly treated, we search in vain for a warm heart. But, whatever West’s intentions, X comes across as a cold exercise rather than a hot, blood-red shot of the strong stuff. Cold and unfeeling. You can’t ask us to think about an old woman’s feelings of hopelessness and then push us to root for her messy death. Whatever West is trying here doesn’t ultimately land, maybe because West himself doesn’t seem to care about any of these people. (Regardless, we are told that a prequel film, Pearl, is already in the can.) Anyway, something is seriously amiss with the tone. Some viewers will find it a spicy hit of cruel fun, while others will feel a little rubbed raw, not to mention disappointed and bummed out. There are actual pornographic horror films, with a budget for gory effects and everything. Any of them, in their simple, mercenary eagerness to please, might set on the stomach a bit better than X. 

Scream (2022)

April 10, 2022

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The best reason to watch Scream, the fifth in the meta-horror franchise, is to see the gravitas that has gathered in the acting styles of Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, and David Arquette. All of them were in their twenties or early thirties when the first Scream hit big in 1996, and they have endured through each sequel since, though there hadn’t been one in eleven years before the new one. The addition of wrinkles and wisdom has done interesting things to the characters. Campbell, as perennial survivor Sidney Prescott, has a certain hard-won grace in the face of horror. Cox’s intrepid reporter Gale Weathers has become much less of a satire of tabloid journalism and more of a real, abashed person (her book about the original Scream case has led to movies and assorted mayhem). And Arquette imbues the once-goofy Deputy Dewey with a survivor’s sardonic bitterness.

Actually, the best reason may also be the only reason. This Scream starts the slasher ball rolling in Woodsboro once again, with the cloaked, Munch-faced killer Ghostface turning up and doing damage. There are, as usual, a cast of suspects, including Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera), daughter of the original film’s co-killer Billy Loomis. (A de-aged Skeet Ulrich appears as Billy in Sam’s febrile daydreams.) Back in Scream 3, which is where the series pretty well began its descent, the plotting reminded me of nothing so much as Murder, She Wrote by way of the CW. Which is valid, I guess, because a lot of the early slasher flicks (including the very first Friday the 13th) might as well have been dusty murder mysteries retooled for the ‘80s slasher craze. Still, the plottier and whodunit-er these things get, the further away they break from true fear. 

And that’s part of the problem with the new Scream. My theory is that if your brain is engaged in who could be the killer, it becomes an exercise, and whenever a character is killed you just say “Well, they can’t be the killer.” However, the right director can bring a humanity to the proceedings that makes us care, and that’s what the late Wes Craven did in the first two films, anyway. Craven was able to stage horrific violence and sadism, but in person he was unanimously said to be a kindly professor type, and so we felt the pain and fear in Craven’s violence because he felt it too. If you don’t care about the human beings getting slaughtered, it’s just special effects to be viewed neutrally. Some of the brutality in Craven’s best Scream entries was exceptionally gory and nasty, but it hit all the harder because, say, Drew Barrymore was allowed to establish an instant rapport with the audience (and her character’s fate was legitimately shocking at the time). We cared. Here, the gore is even nastier — I continue to be surprised, not necessarily in a bad way, by how much splatter the MPAA lets movies get away with nowadays — but we don’t care. At this point, it’s just “Cut back to more Neve Campbell, or hurry up and get to the killer reveal.”

In 1996, I was already more than a little old for the impact Scream had on teenagers at the time. I took it as a terrific homage; teenagers took it on a different, more direct level. The metafictional aspect of it was like a big welcome sign to the millennial audience, but the grisly kick of the horror sealed the deal. The first two Screams (they really should have stopped there, but they couldn’t, and they won’t — a sixth Scream is already pencilled in for next year) occupy a very specific part of late-‘90s American pop-cultural real estate, when Gen-X was starting to get the keys to Hollywood in a second wave after the class of ’94. Original scripter Kevin Williamson is an early Gen-Xer, and Gen-X irony is all over Scream and Scream 2. The tone of the new Scream is like a faded photocopy of that irony. This time the concepts of “legacy sequels” and “elevated horror” are roasted, in the era of the Halloween reboot and the rise of the indie studio A24. But I think it’s safe to say that when a series reaches its fifth go-round, it can no longer afford to be snarky about tropes that make money. Its cultural critiques are no longer well-taken, and this corporate concern stopped being a goof on endless slasher clichés and started simply putting them to work quite a long time ago.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022)

February 20, 2022

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Have the people who made Netflix’s new Texas Chainsaw Massacre ever used a chainsaw? The tool wielded by Leatherface (Mark Burnham) cuts through flesh, bone, wood, and metal with magically equal ease, like a hot knife carving an ice-cream cake. Not bad for a weapon that’s been literally sitting plastered up inside a wall for years. If, however, you’ve used an actual chainsaw to cut actual objects, you’ll know this thing is more akin to a lightsaber or Excalibur — a pretty funny concept, if only the movie weren’t so dour and unpleasant. Yes, I know a Texas Chainsaw Massacre film has every right to be unpleasant, but I mean its mood as much as its content. Tobe Hooper’s original was hell on earth to shoot, yet it has an artful, almost playful vibe. The new one feels bitter and miserable, with a side order of red-state resentment of entrepreneurial urban zoomers that I can’t tell if the movie sympathizes with or is just exploiting.

This movie, like David Gordon Green’s Halloween, is a direct sequel to the original film and disregards any other sequels/prequels/remakes. It’s been fifty years since the donnybrook at the ol’ Texas house, occupied by Leatherface and his family of cannibals. The family is never spoken of here; we’re told Leatherface went to live at an orphanage (implying he was a very large teenager in the original film, which still puts him at least in his sixties here) and has stayed there for years, cared for by a very forgiving woman (Alice Krige). But the aforementioned zoomers roll into town, having bought up property to auction it off. The kids say they own Krige’s house. She disagrees. The cops come, she has a heart attack, and Leatherface — who presumably has been peaceful all these years — crushes that olive branch in one beefy fist. 

The gory kills — the MPAA must really have grown lax about movie violence over the last decade or so — may be the only thing keeping us connected to the film. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an angry film — angry at well-to-do zoomers, angry at the bank, angry at killers who are still out there somewhere. Taking another page from Green’s Halloween, the film brings back the original’s Final Girl: Sally Hardesty (Olwen Fouéré, in for the great Marilyn Burns, who passed in 2014), who escaped Leatherface and went on to be a Texas ranger obsessed with hunting him down. What’s weird is that we’ve been half-rooting for Leatherface, because the rich kids are mostly annoying and we feel bad he lost his caretaker, and then Sally comes in and talks about him like a mad dog who must be put down. Olwen Fouéré sells Sally’s righteous fury, pulling us over some of the dumber stuff Sally does, like insisting Leatherface acknowledge who she is when she should just be shotgunning him into the next phase of existence.

That’s a bothersome little detail. Sally must figure or hope that if she has to die, she might as well die while killing Leatherface, and if he doesn’t know her, he’ll at least know she was the one who killed him. But this is a horror movie, so she isn’t guaranteed that kind of send-off or closure. This Texas Chainsaw Massacre offers no one any slack except maybe a redneck handyman (Moe Dunford) who acts like a red-hat stereotype until he develops some shadings of sympathy. The kids, except one (Elsie Fisher, from Eighth Grade) who survived a school shooting, are obnoxious in ways that will sting unexpectedly. These little pricks call the cops to kick a disabled old lady out of her home — tell me again why we shouldn’t revel in their chainsaw vivisection?

Other than a brief bit appearance (played by Burns) in 1995’s awful Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, we haven’t seen Sally Hardesty in almost fifty years. A movie with more curiosity about what she’s been up to might have been nice. It could have centered Sally more, played up the death-match angle. Instead, we get a bunch of little snots for Leatherface to turn into fine red mist, while Sally stomps around on the film’s margins, finally thrown away like blood-soaked trash, like almost everyone else here. And this sequel dares to evoke the original film’s masterful final shots without having a thousandth of their impact. It doesn’t convey freedom and hysteria, it conveys helplessness and grief. The whole movie is like that — depressing, despairing. 

Halloween Kills

October 17, 2021

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It’s difficult to judge Halloween Kills, since it’s the middle film in what’s going to be a trilogy (the capper, Halloween Ends, starts filming in January for release next October). What’s more, this trilogy, under the stewardship of director David Gordon Green and his writing-producing partner Danny McBride, looks as if it’s going to be all about fear and its destructive or self-destructive variations. Green and McBride (joined on the script here by Scott Teems) are devoted to this idea, often to the point of straining credulity. People in the movie act stupidly all the time, but not because they’re stupid — they’re afraid. The problem is, they’re still doing dumb-ass stuff and we’re still going “Oh, come on.” It doesn’t matter why characters do stupid things; they’re going to read to us as stupid people, and we’re going to wonder why we’re spending time with them, unless it’s a farce, which, despite some ridiculous moments, Halloween Kills is not.

David Gordon Green is going to take his moment in the Halloween franchise’s history to instruct us (literally, the theme is spelled out near the end) on fear and its sociopolitically deranging aspects. As such, Halloween Kills will be more interesting for horror academics to nosh on than for humble horror fans who just want a good scare. (Which, as original director John Carpenter assured us forty-three Halloweens ago, we’re all entitled to.) The academics will find great meaning, for instance, in two couples here — an interracial couple and a gay couple — who are butchered by series superslasher Michael Myers. Do they die for their “sins”? I’m going to guess not. Michael, you see, represents fear, and fear in the form of violent bigotry kills such couples. If Green didn’t actually intend that, I’ll be annoyed. But also relieved.

There was a psychiatrist in Green’s previous Halloween movie whose baffling actions worked better as subtext than as text. As subtext, we could see why Green wanted to go there. As text, it made no sense. And Halloween Kills is loaded with stuff like that. I guarantee you someone with a hearty appetite for symbology will read all sorts of jolly things into the movie, which prove it’s really about [insert grand concept here]. But if you’re just hanging out and being told this story, there’s way too much stuff that makes you go “Wait a minute.” 

A big chunk of the film has to do with an enraged mob, led by original 1978 near-victim Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall, credible as a muscleheaded twerp), which eventually drives an innocent person to their death. For a reel or so, suddenly we’re in bargain-bin Ibsen or Arthur Miller. Now, I can nod coolly and claim to find all kinds of subtextual merit in this sub-subplot — Michael/fear turns people into killers — but my honest response while watching was “This is fucking stupid.” Is there going to be a whole third movie of things like this? Halloween Kills picks up the minute Halloween 2018 left off, so franchise heroine Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is sidelined due to injuries incurred last time. Having read the script, Laurie knows exactly what Michael is and why he (fear) must be Faced and Defeated. She talks about this frequently, when she’s supposed to be concentrating on not bleeding out from the stitches she’s ripped. 

Almost as frequent are the gory deaths; every so often, Green snaps awake and brings someone into Michael’s path so that he can end them brutally. Corpses are always being happened upon, causing fear and grief. The mob rises, carried by the simplistic slogan/chant “Evil dies tonight!” Laurie convalesces with Deputy Hawkins (Will Patton), who gets a couple of flashbacks detailing his mishaps with Michael on that night in 1978 and the cop who offers to cover it up — suddenly we’re in small-town Sidney Lumet. Green stops the narrative dead so the cop can lay out what their official story is going to be. Again, this is yet another illustration of PTSD persisting for decades — the deputy is still miserable about his brush with Fear forty years later — but it feels dangerously like a sidetrack.

Halloween Kills is so obsessed with fear that it defines the actions and fate of everyone onscreen; how ironic that the movie packs so few scares. Green’s Halloween films may be the only movies ever made that concern an unstoppable killer butchering people but aren’t really horror movies. His first attempt worked because his concept was fresher then, but now it isn’t, and he has his work cut out for him on the next one. Halloween Kills isn’t hackwork by any means; the craft is high, the violence blunt and punishing, some of the performances believably rattled. (MVP for me: Robert Longstreet as the grown former bully Lonnie, who has a beer-scented, stubbly authenticity about him; he seems to have stepped out of a late-‘70s Stephen King book.) I can even respect what Green is trying to do with these films in theory. But in practice … oof. Green meditates on fear; John Carpenter inspired it.

Behemoth

August 29, 2021

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Peter Szewczyk (credited here as Sefchik) is a digital-effects artist who has worked on a few Star Wars films and Avatar. So in his feature directing debut Behemoth, we know the monsters and other effects will be first-rate. Unfortunately, everything else in this underpopulated mash-up of paranoid corporate thriller and trippy supernatural horror is second-rate at best. Joshua (Josh Eisenberg) is a father driven around the bend by grief and guilt over his ailing little daughter, whose disease may have been caused by the chemical company he used to work for. Along with a couple of friends, Joshua kidnaps a higher-up at the company (Paul Statman) and keeps him at a motel, hoping to force a confession: what poisoned his daughter?

This crime is all over the news, so it’s odd that the cops don’t bother to question Joshua’s wife Amy (Whitney Nielsen), who’s staying in a hospital room with their daughter. Instead, every time we hear from Amy, she lays a guilt trip on Joshua for not being there for his daughter. Meanwhile, Joshua’s friends give new meaning to the word “inept,” and an assassin from the company is closing in. There are also numerous hellish visions involving what seems to be a possessed goat, as well as sundry other beasties and Natural Born Killers-style strobe-cuts flashing gore-soaked demons and butchers. 

That last element seems to be where Szewczyk’s heart is. As I noted about Wishmaster, the directorial debut of practical-effects maestro Robert Kurtzman, such craftspeople who graduate to the director’s chair often focus on their specialty to the exclusion of all else. Behemoth gasses on a lot about the evils of corporations poisoning the land and our children, which is a valid topic for a movie if overdone, but then Szewczyk festoons it with monsters and grotesques. Is this corporation literally run by devils and ghouls? Szewczyk and his co-writer Derrick Ligas don’t really connect the theme and the plot, and frankly there’s not enough plot to power a feature-length film. The denouement further makes Behemoth feel like an extended (and bad) Twilight Zone episode.

At times, Behemoth wants us to think all the grody stuff is just in Joshua’s head. That suspicion intensifies when Joshua pops some of his friend’s MDA instead of painkillers (oh yeah, Joshua spends most of the movie contending with a bullet wound in his hip, despite which he manages to stand up and not bleed out) and hallucinates all kinds of gnarly phantasms — or are they hallucinations? There’s a story buried in there somewhere, but a lot more of it needed to be dug out of the soil. As it is, Szewczyk unearthed whatever bits would justify playing in his digital-monster sandbox but only got crumbs of anything that would have made the story meaningful, resonant. 

Some might be willing to go along with it just for the horned boogeymen, but a more concerning problem with Behemoth is that Peter Szewczyk is good at what he usually does, but simply isn’t cut out to direct. His actors listlessly chew the scenery when they’re not tossing off dead-zone line readings, and he has no sense of pace, so the movie feels much longer than it is. We’re often not sure what’s important and what isn’t (does the same actor play a newscaster and a motel manager? why? are they involved in the action or just a daydream?), and Szewczyk doesn’t seem to know, either. The narrative just grinds on unpleasantly but artlessly — except for those computer-generated nasties. They deserve to be in a better film, one that doesn’t rely so heavily on them to work, and then doesn’t work anyway. 

A Quiet Place Part II

August 1, 2021

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John Krasinski, we might imagine, sat in his office chortling at all the headaches he put the characters through while writing A Quiet Place Part II. On the set, directing all the chaos, he may have chuckled even more. Krasinski had more fun, I hope, than we do watching the film — it’s grim and stressful and relentless, but comes off even more hollow than the first film (which Krasinski also directed and co-wrote). What is the deeper point of the story? Is there even more story to tell? Once again, we have the gnarly, chittering alien creatures, whose tracking of prey is based on sound. Again, too, we have Evelyn (Emily Blunt), her daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), her son Marcus (Noah Jupe), and her baby son. They hide and retreat from the critters, and Regan, who is deaf, figures out someone is sending a signal to any survivors.

Those Krasinski set pieces, including the genuinely frightening first reel that shows us glimpses of the ghastly first day of the creatures’ invasion, have a charge of sadistic cleverness. Krasinski likes to set several crises off at once, so he can cross-cut and bludgeon us into a motor response. A Quiet Place Part II is full of wince-provoking moments with people trying like hell not to make noise, but that only goes so far — maybe only as far as the first movie. We’re briefed on a major new weakness of the creatures, which apparently only a relative few people know about, or we’d be seeing a lot more folks availing themselves of that Achilles heel. As it is, human nature ruined the efficacy of any strategy based on that weakness, and a new character, Emmett (Cillian Murphy), has presumably seen hell out there — the few survivors have devolved into people “not worth saving,” he growls. 

Emmett will see the light, though, as sure as there’s Mom and apple pie. Regan, once again well-played by the deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, was a realistically flawed kid in the first film, but has blossomed into a genius who’s pure of heart in the sequel. She’s supposed to represent hope in the face of annihilation, an unfair burden for any character. Late in the film, we meet some of those people Emmett talked about, and they are indeed a scurvy, grotesque bunch — for a few minutes we seem to have wandered into a Rob Zombie movie about the Firefly family, except these psychos don’t swear (or talk). So, according to Krasinski, some survivors are smart and good, and some are little better than sociopathic animals. Since A Quiet Place Part II was in the can by summer 2019, well before the current slow-motion apocalypse, I can’t claim it’s saying anything about some of the dumber, louder conflicts of today. Krasinski does, in hindsight, seem overly optimistic that, presented with a solution to a lethal problem, most Americans would embrace that solution instead of many of them being absolute selfish oblivious dumbasses.

Anyway, a political read of either of these films does no good for the films or for us. They’re meant as mechanical nail-biters working off a cunning premise, though the more pared-down a story is, the harder our brains work to fill the silence with interpretation. Krasinski’s attempt at world-expanding here raises more questions than it answers; as the four refugees in the mall in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead found out, you do have to worry a little about the monsters you’re sharing your oasis with, but you have to worry a lot about the itinerant human dregs who stumble on your bunker and want what you have. Maybe that’ll be the premise of Part III, and Krasinski can throw in a bit about someone developing a vaccine against the creatures and half the population refusing to take it.

Werewolves Within

July 11, 2021

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Something about Werewolves Within doesn’t sit right with me. It’s a horror-comedy, which often means that people and even dogs die and you’re not asked to care much, but even so, this is a glib and breezy affair. We may find ourselves asking why we care if the characters live, either. The script, by memoirist Mishna Wolff, based on a video game, hands the actors lumpy mouthfuls of dialogue that they mostly turn into sentences that sound like real people might say them.

The cast is likable and game; the lead, Sam Richardson, is a large and huggable bundle of neuroses and kindnesses. But most of the rest of the characters are annoying, stereotypes, or both. Wolff and director Josh Ruben betray a snide contempt for flyover country, although a well-to-do gay couple also take some abuse (more for being rich than for being gay; I suppose we must be thankful for small favors). After a longer-than-necessary set-up, Werewolves Within settles into a one-location whodunit, in which evidence mounts that a large animal is savaging men, dogs, and generators in the tiny mountain town of Beaverfield.

There’s already drama in the town over a guy who wants to run a pipeline through the area, waving big paychecks. Some refuse the money; some can’t afford to. The script largely separates anti-pipeliners and pro-pipeliners into elites and Trumpsters. Werewolves Within keeps flirting with the notion of a divided-America metaphor in the whodunit mode; Knives Out did it a lot better, or at least was more enjoyable. Rian Johnson believed in his characters more purely than I believe Ruben and Wolff do, and Johnson’s cast was having a ball with the things they got to say and do. This cast seems to be working against the script. Not to mention that big, gaping traumas both emotional and physical seem far too easily gotten over (lose a husband, lose a hand, keep on truckin’). And if I never again see the gag where someone talks in the middle of the road, oblivious to the large vehicle that’s about to flatten them, I’ll feel no pain.

The plot runs over with red herrings; we figure pretty much anybody could be the culprit. When one of the more annoying and inconsistent characters comes forward and seems to admit to everything, and another character snarks that it would be a disappointment if this person turned out to be the werewolf — well, that also applies to the actual culprit. About halfway through I felt the familiar chill in my belly telling me that I didn’t honestly care who the werewolf was and that I was wasting my time. The tone is just too offensively light; it plays like the pilot of a CW show that only lasts one season. Towards the finish, people keep lurching forward and seeming to reveal themselves. It’s all amiably meaningless.

There are any number of ways Werewolves Within could’ve been about something, could’ve worked its paranoia into a statement on mistrustful America. But it’s too hip for that, too ready to score points off of ignorant small-towners who just want to open a craft shop (okay) but are willing to murder for it (wait, what?). Maybe it shouldn’t have bothered with its shallow stabs at relevance — the little attempts at commentary (rural types love their guns and beer) make it always seem on the verge of satire.

Character work at the script level might’ve helped. Michaela Watkins is a force of nature, and it’s sad to watch her playing yet another braying yahoo. Milana Vayntrub might emerge with some new fans, even though the movie betrays her. Sam Richardson comes off best — unsurprising, as he’s one of the producers — but he deserves better, too. One minute his character is bleeding badly from a gut wound; not much later, he’s flinging heavy axes at a nemesis. It’d be cool if even horror-comedies about werewolves could at least acknowledge reality, how things like bodies and blood and grief work.

Army of the Dead

May 23, 2021

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It’d be nice if Athena Perample got a career bump from Zack Snyder’s mediocrity at length Army of the Dead. A stuntwoman, Perample appears in the new zombie film as a character credited as Alpha Queen, and she slinks around hissing and looking fabulous in an undead Corpse Bride fashion. (Even the zombies are hotties in Snyderverse.) I’ve seen Army of the Dead described as being full of characters who could carry their own interesting movies, but are instead all stuck with each other in a boring movie. The Alpha Queen would be exhibit A. Are the alpha zombies the top of the hierarchy of zombies? Do they have a culture? Leisure activities? They’re said to be smarter than the usual “shamblers,” but are they building anything or just squatting on the dust of a dead world?

There’s little evidence that Zack Snyder cared all that much about the implications of a zombie society. Snyder isn’t a thinker; like Christopher Nolan, he works up to big, showy sequences, devoted to his jock-nerd idea of cool. I don’t think Snyder is without merit: he did well by Watchmen and made an accidental masterpiece with Sucker Punch, which I persist in considering unconscious art. But without a strong structure, his films tend to go by in a semi-sequential blur. They have no internal clock, no rhythm. Something happens, something else happens, and it’s all on the same emotionally null level. 

Army of the Dead is never more risible than when it asks us to sniffle over the fates of characters we barely know, even though Snyder has plenty of time to acquaint us with them. Hell, George Romero’s longest Dead film was only 126 minutes, and it was described as “epic” despite being confined mostly to one location. This damn thing runs for two hours and twenty-eight minutes, and though it mashes up the zombie genre and the heist genre — a group of hardcases are tasked with getting millions of dollars out of a Vegas casino before the whole zombie-overrun city gets nuked — it doesn’t even give us a montage where the players plot things out. Dave Bautista gets top billing as a mercenary (I guess?) who puts a team together to fetch the money, and again, as with Man of Steel, the connective narrative — when Bautista recruits various people (a safecracker, a hard-bitten expert at zombie warfare) — feels like placeholders. Snyder kind of just goes through them so he can get to the good stuff, when zombies bite folks real good and then get shot up real good. In both cases, blood sprays all over the place.

Army of the Dead is raring to be big and excessive, and the concussive deep bass and scale of it can be mesmerizing in fits and starts. Sometimes we look at the chaotic images and we lament the kind of zombie opus that George Romero was never given the budget to make. Romero would’ve known what to do with this cast, too. I like Bautista — his cartoonishly wide frame holds some tenderness — but Snyder doesn’t do much with him. A lot of the publicity has surrounded Tig Notaro being digitally ported in to replace accused sexual scumbag Chris D’Elia, but the movie neither gets the best out of her nor deserves it. We’re supposed to root for all these people because they’re not zombies, I guess, although the film sometimes seems on the verge of switching our allegiances around (hey, zombies have feelings too!) but ends up fumbling that too.

Snyder spent the better part of a decade in the DC Comics wilderness, making dour, overlong films nobody much enjoyed. Did he ever even like superheroes? He seemed more at home with the deconstructionist superhero valedictory Watchmen. I thought Sucker Punch was a possible unaware shiv in the ribs to the Comic-Con rules of cool — Snyder the naive satirist. But in Army of the Dead he’s back doing stuff seemingly calculated to make high-school boys exclaim “Badass!,” except this time nothing is skewered. The story is bloated and amorphous, and whatever targets it might have are murky. As in his Dawn of the Dead remake, Snyder isn’t using the zombie movie as a Trojan horse for social comment; even the crass irony of zombies feasting on Vegas schmucks and showgirls is threadbare and abruptly handled. Snyder just wants to get to the parts where hordes of zombies get their brains blown out, over and over. It gets old for us a lot sooner than it does for him. 

The Stylist

February 21, 2021

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Claire (Najarra Townsend) is a hair stylist, and a good one. A loner who lives with a limping little dog, her attempts at small talk with her clients are a bit awkward, but she’s trusted enough to get a wedding-hairdo gig for Olivia (Brea Grant), a hard-charging magazine editor. What Olivia doesn’t know is that Claire is lonely to the point of psychosis. In her basement, Claire keeps an assortment of pretty scalps on glass mannequin heads; she tries on each one and pretends to be the woman she scalped. The Stylist, cowritten and directed by Jill Gevargizian, is an expansion of her 2016 short film (you can watch the short on YouTube). Here and there the burn is slow, but the feature doesn’t feel padded. Claire is part Leatherface and part Frank from the gory cult horror film Maniac, and almost every frame is devoted to her.

The difference between Gevargizian’s film and the recent Saint Maud, which also concerns a deeply troubled young woman and her thorny relation to the outside world, is that Gevargizian is simply a better filmmaker who knows when to sprinkle some humor, some humanity, some suspense. The Stylist is far-fetched but emotionally readable. It’s not going to show us the nuts and bolts of how exactly Claire has been getting away with her hobby; that part isn’t very important to Gevargizian, the disposal of bodies and so forth, not to mention how Claire poisons or drugs her victims so that she can scalp in peace. We wait uneasily for one of the unwilling hair donors to blink awake. More than once, Claire finds herself somewhere she shouldn’t be, and manages to hide or flee smoothly enough that we may wonder how much of her nocturnal activity is real.

A lot of this will crumble apart if subjected to too much literal scrutiny, so let’s not. Gevargizian intends The Stylist as a bloody, wincing metaphor for yearning for someone else’s life. A hair stylist herself, Gevargizian knows how well-heeled women talk to those they consider their servants, even if they fancy themselves too liberal to use that word for people who, in fact, serve them. Women frequently complain to Claire about their cushy but dull lives, not knowing they’re talking to someone who would gladly take over those lives. Claire never really does, though. She doesn’t go out on the town with her new identity as a blonde or a brunette; she sits in front of a mirror in her basement lair and talks to herself, echoing her victims’ dialogue. Even her insane method of self-actualization is smothered in secrecy — and isolation.

Claire’s ultimate project would appear to be Olivia, though it’s by no means clear that Claire would know what to do with Olivia’s life if she had it. As the movie approaches Olivia’s wedding, we wonder how it will play out; will Claire snap out of it and give up her extracurriculars, or will Gevargizian jump into the deep end along with Claire? That’s the source of most of the suspense and dread in The Stylist. Unlike the critically lionized Saint Maud, this film is actually about something besides the degraded mood of watching a sad woman deteriorate beyond help. It seems concerned with different strains of resentment — between women, and between socioeconomic classes. It follows a cracked protagonist without making the mistake of excusing her — or condemning her. It’s also one hell of a gnarly horror film, and one that has no shame whatsoever about that.