Archive for the ‘horror’ category

Smile

November 20, 2022

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Superhero movies aren’t the only kind of movies that survived the pandemic and restored some faith in the future of theaters. Horror movies (Barbarian, Halloween Ends, Bodies Bodies Bodies, Terrifier 2) have been rallying, and one of the bigger success stories has been Smile, which has taken $213 million worldwide against a $17 million budget. Smile was also helped immeasurably by its creepy marketing campaign, which involved putting people wearing menacing smiles behind home plate at baseball games. The actual movie, or should I say the actual story, doesn’t live up to the marketing. But its writer-director Parker Finn is a director to watch.

Note I don’t say “writer to watch.” Stripped down, Smile is the sort of curse film that was popular in Asia about 25 years ago, and then briefly in America. The way the smile curse works is simple. Someone cursed commits messy suicide in front of you (with their face contorted in an eerie, mirthless rictus), creating trauma that the entity feeds on; it then, within the next seven days, cozies up to you and torments you a fair bit before making you, too, kill yourself in front of someone, perpetuating the cycle. There’s a metaphor here for how the unchecked effects of trauma can repeat themselves. But Parker Finn is interested primarily in the number of startling “Boo!” moments — jump scares — he can get out of the premise. Which is disappointing, but Finn sets them up effectively and also creates a sense of oppressive dread as well as random freakiness.

Smile focuses on therapist Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), who had a traumatized patient slit her own throat in front of her. The patient is played by Caitlin Stasey, who played what I think is the same role in Finn’s 2020 short film “Laura Hasn’t Slept.” (I recommend that short, as well as Finn’s first short, 2018’s “The Hidebehind.”) This kicks off a standard supernatural-horror plot in which Rose sees weird, terrifying things, but nobody will believe her, and conveniently she has a cop ex-boyfriend (Kyle Gallner) who can help her track down people connected or related to the smile curse’s prior victims. Smile creates a simultaneous doubling effect in the viewer: we experience the story and we are unimpressed, but we see and hear the stifling moods of fear and frustration Finn can evoke and we wish they weren’t yoked to such a nothing-special story.

I guess Smile will be wild and strange for people whose tastes tend towards the norm of filmmaking. If your norm is Lynch or Cronenberg, you’re likely to shrug, while recognizing Parker Finn’s game as a pure horror director. “The Hidebehind,” for instance, is really nothing other than a piece about a guy lost in the woods who runs into a mysterious entity, but it’s simply and effectively wrought. Finn knows how to use ominous quietude and uncertainty to creep us out. Horror fans will hear more about him in the years to come, but horror fans will also have seen most of the story elements Finn has to offer here and will, again, shrug. Perhaps in the future Finn will hire a good writer, or find a story that means more to him than being a clothesline for ooga-booga freak-outs.

Past a certain point the plot stops making sense — Rose has been flagged as a potential danger to herself and/or others, and she’s still driving around (including to her abandoned childhood house where her mother killed herself, which you’d think would be staked out) as if no one were looking for her. Maybe no one is. Here and there, Smile chills when it brushes against the intractable realities of mental illness in America; Rose gets mildly called onto the carpet when she approves a mental patient for admission but the patient has no insurance. Later, we see that there was no meaningful help available to Rose’s mom; she could only suffer and waste away and terrorize her daughters. Some of the subtext here is cold and ugly in ways that befit a horror movie but put standard horror tropes to shame. And there’s a spectacularly horrific/awkward birthday party with a shock we see coming (and it’s another element whose aftermath is exquisitely implausible as a literal plot point — there would probably be jail time for that) but is still precisely carpentered. Some movies begin as dazzling scripts and get diluted in the filming. Smile may be the exact opposite, a humdrum script that shows off a director who, if he wanted to and had the right material, could really hurt us. Maybe next time. 

Nope

October 23, 2022

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With Nope, his third feature as writer-director, Jordan Peele solidifies his status as one of the most exciting new American filmmakers now working. He has a steady command of mood and suspense, and he knows enough to let subtext be subtext and not overexplain it. I can’t tell you how relieved I was, for instance, that the sad and terrifying story of Gordy the trained chimp, which opens Nope on an ominous note, doesn’t turn out to be connected in some way with the larger plot.¹ Yes, we meet a survivor of the incident as a grown man, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), but Peele has the sense to let the event linger and fester in the back of our minds while we watch what certainly appears to be an alien-invasion thriller.

Ultimately, Nope shakes out as a comment on Hollywood and how people are wasted, swallowed up, disfigured in the name of entertainment. But it’s also foreboding and spooky as hell, like Peele’s previous thrillers, Get Out and Us. The movie is set mostly on a ranch dedicated to training horses for use in TV, movies and commercials. The ranch is owned and run by OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), who takes care of the horses and occasionally sells one to Jupe, who now manages a Western theme park and low-key ghoulishly dines out on his traumatic experience with Gordy. 

All of this is background, and it’s a slow but compelling burn until we recognize what’s going on: a creature of unknown origin is feeding off of local life. I was reminded of Stephen King thinking about him and Louis L’Amour having separate ideas while standing at the edge of a pond: “His story might be about water rights in a dry season, my story would more likely be about some dreadful, hulking thing rising out of the still waters to carry off sheep . . . and horses . . . and finally people.” It’s OJ’s vibrant sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) who figures out what should be done about it: get it on video and get rich. For a while, nobody else comes up with any more productive notions, like how to kill it, because it takes a while to learn what might kill it.

There is one beautifully simple yet brilliant callback: the impact of a balloon popping. It’s a shame one particular character isn’t there to appreciate the second instance. Nope goes on a bit, slightly north of two hours, but is never boring, not with the amount of character and world-building detail Peele packs into the story. The people in the movie are written as utterly unique, including a Fry’s tech clerk (Brandon Perea) who helps set up surveillance and a grizzled cinematographer (Michael Wincott, with his usual gravelly growl) who rises to the challenge of capturing the thing on real film at magic hour. (Cinematographers — what are you gonna do?) Kaluuya gives us a stoic and almost comically unflappable figure — a classic Western hero — and Palmer crackles and pops as a firecracker with innumerable side hustles. 

Nope even tucks in some film history, telling us that the Black jockey who rode a horse for Eadweard Muybridge’s famous 1887 Animal Locomotion Plate 626 was the ancestor of OJ and Emerald. That’s a claim they make to boost their business; it’s also accurate inasmuch as the rider — to this day no one actually knows his name, though the fucking horse was identified — is, in a way, ancestor to all artists of color unnamed, dismissed, and ignored while they added to the history of cinema. The more we think back on Nope, the more depth it takes on; it is the work of a specifically Black sensibility fed by decades of Hollywood, for good (the influence on his own art) and ill (the reality of being non-white in the white dream factory). And Peele has fed well, and knows which bits are nourishing and which not, and he also knows the dangers of consuming too much filled with too little.

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¹Without getting into spoilers, what I mean is that Gordy doesn’t figure into the threat later on; it doesn’t turn out that he was controlled by the menace, or something. Other writers would try to tie those elements together in a neat, cheap little bow instead of allowing Gordy his own power as subtext.

Halloween Ends

October 16, 2022

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We certainly can’t say that Halloween Ends, the last of the new trilogy supposedly putting paid to the struggle between superslasher Michael Myers and survivor Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), does the same old same old. It diverges so wildly from what most fans might expect of a Halloween film that I’d like to give it points on that basis alone. This leg of the franchise has taken the story deadly seriously, layering on subtext after subtext, which is fine if the text itself engages and entertains. But Halloween Ends, like its 2021 predecessor Halloween Kills, comes across more annoying and depressing than scary. 

A nerdy kid named Cunningham with an overbearing, forbidding mother runs across an avatar of evil and loses his moral bearings. John Carpenter made that movie in 1983, from a book by Stephen King, Christine. Well, it also describes the key conflict here. David Gordon Green, who has directed all three of these Halloween movies, and wrote this one with three other guys, has possibly placed this as an Easter egg for the fans. Okay, neato. But the kid here, Corey Cunningham (Rohan Campbell), barely makes sense as a human being. Notoriety has followed him from an incident in which he accidentally killed a kid he was babysitting, and after he’s bullied and meets Michael in the sewers, Michael seems to recognize himself in the kid, and vice versa. 

Meanwhile, Corey also falls for Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), but if we’re supposed to root for him to reach out towards love and sanity and break from the “dark path” he’s trudging down, we don’t. We don’t like him and we don’t care. Green and his co-writers have made Halloween movies more fit for analysis than for seasonal scares. Everything in the movie only makes sense symbolically; taken literally, the plotting is stupid, depending, once again, on people doing the absolute dumbest things they can do. If Halloween Kills was “really” about the deranging power of fear, this one says that evil never dies, it just changes faces under the mask.

The kills are as brutal as ever, accompanied by stylized sounds of squelching, spattering, and slicing. The dirty secret of the slasher subgenre is that its structure allows us to enjoy the murder and mutilation; they’re the crescendos in a musical piece. To his credit, Green wants to do something different, uglifying the deaths. But without the fun or suspense or even the morbid curiosity that makes us want to look at the blood and brains on the floor, where’s the entertainment? I wound up not being sure what Green and his cohorts wanted to accomplish with this trilogy. Here, there’s more boring stuff about how violent tragedy can deform a whole community; we learn that some folks in Haddonfield, Illinois, the sleepy death town where all of this unfolds, blame Laurie for the new Michael murders. This is an example of how the script wants to Say Something Important — in this case, about victim-blaming, I guess? — but completely fumbles it as a plausible thing that happens in the story.

Rohan Campbell has been coached to play the faux-Michael as a sullen, misunderstood kid who kept reminding me unhelpfully of the irritating Caleb Landry Jones. There’s not much of a shift between Corey when he’s “normal” and Corey when he’s gone off the deep end. As for Jamie Lee Curtis, who has been riding a media blitz surrounding her last dance with Michael Myers, she gets a Big Moment near the end but otherwise can’t do a lot with Laurie as (inconsistently) written. I can read Curtis’ loyalty to this diminishing-returns trilogy — she’s said she owes her career to Laurie Strode and is grateful to the franchise’s fans for the life she’s had — far more easily than I can read anyone’s motivations in the film. I will always be fond of Curtis, but the Laurie in these films is beyond my understanding. Green’s 2018 Halloween famously proceeded from the 1978 original and disregarded any of the sequels. By and large, I would like to disregard Green’s sequels, too. His first effort was solid, and he should have stopped there and resisted the temptation to Say Something Important.

Hellraiser (2022)

October 9, 2022

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Try as I might, I’ve never quite snuggled up to the Hellraiser franchise, a gory series of movies, comics and other media derived from Clive Barker’s 1986 story “The Hellbound Heart.” Why this particular tale, among dozens of others in Barker’s portfolio, wound up being his gravestone work is a mystery to me, though perhaps it shouldn’t be. It is, as noted, bloody and nasty, with a side order of cautionary horror about being careful what you wish for. If what you wish for is experience and sensation beyond anything imaginable, the punctured and harrowed angels/demons known as the Cenobites will oblige you — bloodily and nastily. Maybe it’s just a reflection of what scared the openly gay Barker himself during the peak of AIDS — a vision of blood-bound wrath drawn to hedonism.

Barker, who wrote and directed the first Hellraiser film in 1987, returns here as producer but leaves the footwork to other hands: director David Bruckner and writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski. What they come up with is sort of the same old story. The wealthy Roland Voight (Goran Višnjić) acquires the mystical puzzle box that summons the Cenobites and, so they claim, eternal pleasure. Gory things happen, and six years later the box finds its way into the hands of recovering addicts Riley (Odessa A’zion) and her boyfriend Trevor (Drew Starkey). The box is supposed to draw Riley’s blood, but instead it drinks from her brother Matt (Brandon Flynn); he disappears, and Riley determines to find him.

Anyone who’s seen the original Hellraiser probably remembers, with a sick laugh, the movie’s famous line “Jesus wept,”1 which in its context is just what the narrative needs at that moment. The new Hellraiser contains no jokes nearly as good, or indeed many jokes at all. I’m not saying every horror movie should be The Munsters (or even The Re-Animator). But moments of dark levity like “Jesus wept” are what keep the 1987 film warmly thought of after 35 years, and what is there in the new film to compel any affection, either from newcomers or old fans? Not a lot. And even though the acting is fine — Odessa A’zion, daughter of Pamela Adlon, makes Riley touchingly vulnerable, and Jamie Clayton as the Cenobites’ leader “Pinhead” has an icy, mordant way with her lines — unless you’re heavily into watching blood flow and flesh ripped and taffy-pulled, there’s not much entertainment value here.

Better minds than mine have likely analyzed where the Hellraiser concept fits into gay literature. Those who watched lovers and friends fade in the hospital during AIDS’ heyday in the mid-‘80s, watched them become human pincushions and their flesh mottle and melt off the bones, will see more in the torments devised by the Cenobites than others will. And here, in the interest of inclusion, we have a gay male couple, and a trans woman playing Pinhead. Thus the franchise seems queerer than ever, but a Pride float is not the quietest and therefore most deadly vehicle on which to convey the original subtext. “The Hellbound Heart” was a gay male horror artist telling a scary story to other gay men, saying “Look, I get it, but the pursuit of too much pleasure leads to death.” People in other demographics took other things away, of course. It was a big crossover success.

Will this one follow suit? Even if it hadn’t been sent direct to streaming and condemned to an eternal fate of being subsumed into Hulu’s back catalog, Hellraiser ’22 would be too dreary and sober-sided to go over with the mass audience. It’s blandly unpleasant, and even the flesh-ripping scenes pack neither the sting of authentic pain nor the surreal excesses of Barker’s original story. It just sits there, not daring to be remarkably bad or, heaven knows, remarkably good. Like other recent horror “reboots,” its tone is tepid, never showing any personality, and taking the material deadly seriously because the filmmakers think that’s what the fans want. Jesus wept.

1 Yes, I know the line was ad-libbed.

The Munsters (2022)

October 2, 2022

 

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Why does everyone have their knives out for Rob Zombie’s The Munsters? It may be his most endearing feature film. Zombie, of course, is notorious for his grubby grindhouse exploitation throwbacks (The Devil’s Rejects, 31, etc.), but The Munsters is a PG-rated mad-lab goof full of dad jokes and neon colors. You’ll know within the first five minutes if it’s for you, but I took it as a relaxing, cornball Halloween party of the sort I might seek out when I’m sick, as a bowl of cinematic chicken soup or orange sherbet. It sparked warm childhood feelings, and I’m not all that big a fan of the show (The Addams Family has more going on). 

My hunch is that Zombie made this movie — a passion project for a couple of decades — for kids secondarily, and for himself as a kid primarily. There’s even an autobiographical element. The Munsters is a prequel of sorts, outlining how Herman (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Lily Munster (Sheri Moon Zombie) met and how they came to live on Mockingbird Lane in Hollywood. Lily, who hasn’t had much luck on the dating scene, happens across the newly-created Herman at a Transylvanian dive where he’s setting his awful puns to punk-rock music. She sees him onstage, and it’s eternal love; she visits him in his dressing room, and the feeling is mutual. What we’re watching is the courtship of Sheri Moon and Rob Zombie through a Saturday-afternoon, groovie-ghoulie filter.

This movie, which minds its language and only floats a couple of jokes that’ll go over kids’ heads, is surprisingly good-hearted coming from a director who’s built his empire on profane nihilism. Far from being a sell-out, Zombie’s The Munsters takes him in a polar opposite direction, and it reads to me as a risk. After all, fans of the Munsters TV show will likely hate it, as will Zombie fans who just want him to do the gore-drenched adventures of the Firefly family over and over. It will appeal to a slim Venn diagram encompassing people with no strong feelings about the show and people who’ve been waiting for Zombie to change his pitch up a little. Well, he does; it’s loony and doofy, a full-color Mad magazine parody as well as a heartfelt tribute — Zombie very obviously loves these characters, and I responded to that. You may or may not. Like I said, you’ll know soon enough whether it’s a comfy chair you can settle into or a torture chair.

The script is pretty episodic; the plot motor has an obscure character, Lily’s ne’er-do-well werewolf brother Lester (Tomas Boykin) — who only appeared in one episode of the show — sucker Herman into signing over the Transylvanian castle owned by Lily’s vamp father the Count, aka Grandpa (Daniel Roebuck). That explains why they move to Hollywood (along with Herman catching a bit of a horror host on TV and figuring he could do that, too). I found the story didn’t matter (did it ever matter on the show?). I was content to hang out in the tacky haunted-house sets with a cast that seemed fully into it. Even the usually dour Richard Brake camps and vamps it up in two roles here; I was happy to see him smiling and cackling and departing from the sullen bad-asses he’s played for Zombie.

Zombie shares that spirit. I felt him having fun in his best previous efforts (The Devil’s Rejects is some kind of grotesque masterpiece and easily the pinnacle of his greasy-grimy-gopher-guts aesthetic), but this is a different flavor of fun; again, it’s a colorfully wrapped gift from adult Rob Zombie to young Bobby Cummings, who cut his teeth on Famous Monsters and Aurora monster model kits and, well, The Munsters. I can’t put it any other way: The movie made me feel good. Do I want a Munsters franchise from him? Probably not, assuming Netflix would even let him anyway (although the performances, particularly Jeff Daniel Phillips as the dense but jolly Herman and Daniel Roebuck as the caustic Count, are amiable enough to warrant revisits). I’d rather see him move on to other things that light him up, perhaps even an original idea that doesn’t involve the Munsters or certainly the Fireflys. 

Speak No Evil

September 11, 2022

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The Americanized title Speak No Evil only really makes sense after you’ve watched the film; the original Danish title is Gæsterne, or Guests, which has some of the same deadpan wit as the movie itself. Either way it’s a creepy and needling thriller that takes the premise of something like 1981’s Neighbors — these people seem hostile and strange, but we must maintain our politesse — right up to the edge of horror and then pushes it over. Directed by Christian Tafdrup, who has a reputation for social commentary, Speak No Evil would fall apart if its protagonists were crass and unconcerned with hurting others’ feelings or with being seen as insensitive. It’s the movie’s observation of mores and behavior that makes it so unsettling and, in the end, such a sharp knock in the chops.

It may go without saying that the lead couple, Bjørn (Morten Burian) and Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), are upper-middle-class; they can afford a vacation in Tuscany, and only a little while later they can afford to travel to visit a Dutch couple they met in Tuscany. The Dutch couple, Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders), seem warm and welcoming at first. But almost right away, they start transgressing good manners. Louise has said she’s a vegetarian, yet Patrick practically forces her to nibble a piece of beef he’s just cooked. There are other weirdnesses, and when we look back on the script, by Tafdrup and his brother Mads, we may realize just how tight it is, how many details are there right from the start. If Bjørn had been less laid-back about Patrick taking the pool chair, the movie would probably end there.

It doesn’t, and after a while we may also realize that Bjørn is an ideal mark, if that’s what he is. He isn’t just polite; he finds himself drawn to what he perceives as Patrick’s wilder existence. How right Bjørn’s instincts turn out to be is one of the dark jokes of the movie, which unfolds with an elegant malevolence, heightened now and then by ominous rumbles and stabs of Sune Kølster’s score. (The way the music sometimes surges up, seemingly apropos of nothing at all onscreen, is yet another way Tafdrup keeps us disoriented.) At a certain point, we may think Bjørn and Louise — and their little daughter Agnes — are in the clear, but their hosts lure them back in. Back into what, though? Are Patrick and Karin not just eager hosts, if a little unconventional? Are we not betraying some class prejudice towards them (their house is nice if a little small and cluttered) as well as some ableist bigotry because they have a little son, Abel, who was born without most of his tongue?

Well, it’s that sort of thinking that Christian Tafdrup wants to incinerate, or at least to throw back in our faces. Like many effective horror-thrillers, Speak No Evil is not remotely nice — in its universe, giving people the benefit of the doubt leads nowhere good. The acting is natural and pulls you along on a leash of credibility. Van Huêt and Smulders are particularly adept at making Patrick and Karin seem misunderstood; their customs are just a little different, that’s all. Right? They’re so nice, and they’d be so sad to see you go; why would you want to hurt them by leaving? Nobody wants to say no, nobody wants to look like a dick. They would rather die a slow, brutal death than be seen as stuck-up and rude.

Day Shift

August 14, 2022

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J.J. Perry is a martial artist, fight coordinator, and former stunt person/stunt supervisor. So it doesn’t surprise me that Perry’s first film as a director, Day Shift, is a zesty tribute to all those disciplines. Jamie Foxx’s Bud Jablonski, a vampire hunter posing as a pool cleaner in L.A., strides into one vampire nest after another, loaded for bear, and the vampires don’t take Bud’s invasions lying down. No, they come at him whirling and kicking and chopping, and Bud puts them down with various weapons and techniques, though just barely. Vampirism, it seems, confers lots of violent skills upon the vampire other than just biting, and Day Shift is there to showcase them all.

It’s a fast, furious Saturday-afternoon time-killer, but how is it aside from the mayhem? The script, by Tyler Tice and Shay Hatten, comes up with sly ideas like a vampire hunters’ union, whose codes and rules make it hard for a firecracker like Bud to make a living. So he’s been working on his own, making far less money, until he needs a quick infusion of cash to make sure his ex-wife Jocelyn (Meagan Good) and daughter Paige (Zion Broadnax) don’t take off for Florida — he needs to cover the costs of Paige’s tuition and braces. As a plot motor, it’s a bit dusty — we’re to believe Bud has gone all this time keeping his real job a secret from his family — but we go along with it to get to the good parts.

The union stuff gives Bud an unwanted partner — Seth (Dave Franco), a union bean-counter assigned to observe Bud, who’s applying to get back into the union for more money, to make sure he follows all the rules. Bud doesn’t, of course, and the premise that Seth is Bud’s babysitter doesn’t last long. Seth exists solely as a wimpy foil for Bud’s go-for-broke, hammer-headed methods. Foxx and Franco make a mildly amusing team, though I would’ve liked to see more of Snoop Dogg, who has a few scenes and makes them count as Big John, a respected vamp-slayer. For that matter, I was ready for more of Natasha Liu Bordizzo as Heather, Bud’s mysterious neighbor. In some ways, the characters and worldbuilding in Day Shift seem to lay groundwork for further stories, like John Wick (co-writer Hatten worked on the third John Wick and is attached to the next two).

Bud frequently storms enclosed spaces, the better for he and his vampire prey to bounce off the walls. The vehicular stunt work is particularly well staged, composed, and edited. Sometimes when a master of another film vocation — say, special effects or cinematography — ascends to the director’s chair, they focus on their thing and forget most of the other things that go into making a movie. That isn’t the case here. J.J. Perry seems to respect the moth-eaten plot motor of Bud doing battle with monsters for the sake of his little girl, and the scenes that don’t involve stunts don’t seem rushed or half-assed. Day Shift feels like a movie made by a craftsperson who may have gotten tired of watching inept directors disrespect the arts of stuntwork and fight choreography by slicing it into a thousand unviewable pieces in the editing room. You can see what’s going on here, and that’s a relief.  

If Foxx wants a bubble-headed, action-oriented franchise, he’s got one here. As long as they bring all the folks back, especially Snoop, I’ll watch. But is L.A. — hell, the world — really so infested by vampires that an actual union of vampire killers is needed? It’s a funny idea, one that may get fleshed out in sequels, and a vamp bigwig called El Jefe (Dracula?) is mentioned but never seen. Sometimes vampires seem to outnumber humans here. The big bad here is Audrey (Karla Souza), who wants a world where humans worship vamps as gods. But has she really thought it through? If vampires feed on humans all the time, where will their worshipers come from? Or their meals? Zombies chow down on people with no thought for long-term consequences because, well, zombies aren’t big on thinking, but you’d think vampires would be more savvy. 

He’s Watching

July 24, 2022

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When COVID first knocked on our doors, people responded to lockdown in different ways. Some binged TV shows; others baked bread. Jacob Estes (Mean Creek, Don’t Let Go) and his family made a horror movie, mostly in and around their L.A. home. He’s Watching casts Estes’ kids, Iris and Lucas, as the leads, playing lightly fictional versions of themselves. Iris and Lucas are stuck at home while their parents are in the hospital, laid low by a virus far deadlier than COVID. The kids hang out, getting on each other’s nerves as young siblings do. Then something else starts getting on their nerves. Demon? Ghost? Neighborhood stalker?

Estes sustains a creepy, mysterious tone for roughly the whole running time, using only what’s at hand, along with a few special effects. For the most part, He’s Watching transcends its origins as the Estes’ version of baking bread, letting us share in the thrills. The third act feels as though a little air leaks out, as the kids become supernatural detectives hunting for an explanation for the odd omens and objects that keep being left around the house. The movie verges on plot-centered here, and the plot isn’t the most effective part of He’s Watching. It’s the dimly lit atmosphere that conceals as many horrors as it may reveal. The kids, too, are natural actors; Estes and his wife Gretchen Lieberum (who cameos in the film as a couple of apparitions) should be proud.

Among the more eerie aspects are what appear to be snowflakes, falling languidly outside and also floating around inside. I took it as a neat visual metaphor for whatever’s hovering in the air killing people. (We’re told children are immune to the virus — which was assumed of COVID, too, at first.) Ultimately, though, He’s Watching wears its pandemic cloak lightly; the virus only exists to explain why Iris and Lucas are alone at home, with no adults to help them. (We see quite a few of the dead grown-up neighbors; if there are any other living kids around, we don’t see them.) The real meat is the mysterious intruder and what he wants. Which, again, is chilling when he’s pursuing the kids; less so when they pursue him.

Still, what Estes, his family, and some game friends have done here is laudable, an achievement of sinister mood in a shiny L.A. house. The revelation of what did attract the interloper even has a satirical whiff about it. I got burned out on found-footage films a while ago, and He’s Watching is a late example, but its use of phone footage is well-judged. There may be a subtle chill in the footage, too. A lot of times we can’t tell who’s filming the phone clips we see, because both kids are in the shots. If not them, who? The movie answers by putting us in the position of an invisible creature staring at the kids. That might be the creepiest effect of all. 

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

x

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.