Movie Review ~ Séance

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Camille Meadows is the new girl at the prestigious Edelvine Academy for Girls. Soon after her arrival, six girls invite her to join them in a late-night ritual, calling forth the spirit of a dead former student who reportedly haunts their halls. But before morning, one of the girls is dead, leaving the others wondering what they may have awakened.

Stars: Suki Waterhouse, Inanna Sarkis, Madisen Beaty, Ella-Rae Smith, Seamus Patterson, Marina Stephenson Kerr, Megan Best, Stephanie Sy, Jade Michael

Director: Simon Barrett

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  What terrific fortune is this?  Two respectably good female-led slasher films released within weeks of each other?  Can it be?  After a long dry spell with a pile of duds and clunkers, an eerie wind of change is blowing and bringing with it revitalized energy to a genre that was barely standing.  Early May’s Initiation was a clever subversion of the typical college-set slice and dice thrillers that populated many cinemas throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, giving tired tropes an entertaining dust off.  Now along comes Séance with its spooky boarding school setting and Craft-ian vibes to send some chills through your screen. What both films may lack in overall budget and the benefit of a release via a larger platform, they more than make-up for in playful deference to their treasured inspirations.

I could understand some dubious feelings about Séance at first glance, because I had them too.  The original poster with pouty girls in school uniforms in front of a foreboding dormitory made it look like one of those generically terrible Redbox cheapie titles that come out of nowhere and offer little return for your overnight fee.  A closer inspection (and a better poster) unveils some pedigree behind the scenes and that was enough to get me signed up for writer/director Simon Barrett’s feature debut.  A screenwriter on respectable genre outings like You’re Next and The Guest, Barrett also penned the attempted reboot of Blair Witch in 2016 that was better than many gave it credit for.  Teaming up with Dark Castle Entertainment (the production label responsible for remakes of House of Wax, House on Haunted Hill, and original titles The Apparition, Ghost Ship, Gothika, and Orphan) and streaming service Shudder, Barrett was able to get this one made during the pandemic without sacrificing any of its effectiveness in the scare department. 

The exclusive Edelvine Academy for Girls is supposedly haunted by the spectre of a former student that died under mysterious circumstances.  At least that’s what the group of girls attempting to call her spirit forth late one night in a dark bathroom mirror are hoping for.  Saying her name into their reflections several times doesn’t produce the result they are expecting, but it does leave one skeptic so frightened that she winds up dead later that night.  Was it an accident, was it the spirit, or was it someone else with a razor-sharp axe to grind?  The tragedy leaves an opening for a new student, though, and Camille Meadows (Suki Waterhouse, Pokémon Detective Pikachu) is the next name on the list. 

Failing to make a great first impression to the headmistress (Marina Stephenson Kerr, The Grudge, a sort of B-list Michelle Pfeiffer) after getting into a nasty fight with HBIC Alice (Inanna Sarkis) before she can even unpack her bags, Camille doesn’t fit the new girl mold in kowtowing to existing hierarchies or ways of doing business.  Instead, she asserts her dominance from the get-go and isn’t above landing or taking a punch from Alice or any of the other girls that run in her gang. (Side note: when did girl fights get so crazy? Camille refuses to move from Alice’s table and in response Alice punches her several times right in the face for her ‘crime’. Yeow!)

Camille does manage to find some people she likes; shy Helina (Ella-Rae Smith, The Commuter) was friends with the girl who recently died and Trevor (Seamus Patterson, Books of Blood) is the son of the headmistress and a handyman/boy around campus.  Through them, Camille learns more about the “accident” and other strange goings-on around the school, just in time for her detention to begin with the other girls for their opening day fight.  While they’re cleaning out and organizing a musty section of the school, they decided to press their luck and try out another séance, but this time their ceremony definitely brings something into reality…a slinky killer that begins to swiftly chop away at the girls. 

As he has with his previous scripts, Barrett makes efficient use out of his dialogue and doesn’t waste a lot of time with extraneous tangents.  It’s not Pulitzer Prize winning stuff, nor is it intended to be.  However, there is a mystery at the heart of Séance the audience is meant to figure out and clues are dropped along the way to help those paying close attention unravel in advance of the Big Reveal (one of several, I might add) near the end.  Barrett also excels at creating strong female characters that fight back, not just those that have a surge of energy when they most need it, either.  These are women that are prepared and not helpless and I like that he seems to have that in mind as he develops the story.  The idea of victimhood isn’t at the forefront of his mind and none of the women in the movie are portrayed as feeble or lacking…only in terms of perhaps coming up short in the conscience department.

There is a nice overall tone achieved and more than a few sly frights along the way. With the scary comes the silly and a dance sequence with some questionable skill level is one you’ll just have to bite your tongue through.  It’s also worth noting that it took my partner and I a full forty-five minutes to decide if this was a prep school or a college because the ages of the actresses are so varied you can’t quite tell the academic institution they are attending.  If you’re looking at Waterhouse, it should be a college.  Then you look at Madisen Beaty (To the Stars) and you’d believe it could be a boarding school for children of rich parents. 

Nitpicks and a few plot holes aside, Séance is one I think horror fans can join hands and get their arms around with ease.  It’s well made and at brisk 92 minutes moves at a nice clip, dotting it’s time with the appropriate amount of momentum so that it doesn’t experience that middle sag which can drag a lesser film down.  It joins recent feminist slasher films in skewering expectations without beating audiences over the head with any agenda to do so.  Would be a great Saturday night choice or could even be enjoyed as a late afternoon watch if the clouds grow dark and the rain falls.

Movie Review ~ Sound of Violence

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young girl recovers her hearing and gains synesthetic abilities during the brutal murder of her family. Finding solace in the sounds of bodily harm, as an adult, she pursues a career in music composing her masterpiece through gruesome murders.

Stars: Jasmin Savoy Brown, Lili Simmons, James Jagger, Tessa Munro, Brian Huskey

Director: Alex Noyer

Rated: NR

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: The biggest gripe I have in movies these days, and horror films in general, is a lack of originality when it comes to their delivery.  While it may be true that there are only a set number of core plots that every story springs from, it doesn’t explain away why every rom-com has to follow the same path toward happily ever after or how revenge is most often a killer’s motivation in slasher films.  There’s nothing in the rulebook saying you have to move from Point A to Point B in a set number of moves so lately I’ve been more interested in films that go off the beaten path, especially if the terrain they choose is extra rough.      

Believe it or not, the most impressive aspect of Sound of Violence are the visuals.  While this creative horror film gets some mileage out of an interesting way into its creepy story through exploring the phenomenon of synesthesia, it winds up overwhelmed by its own oddity.  What’s troubling is that you as an audience member can see this wrong-turn wave coming but then have to watch filmmaker Alex Noyer do nothing to get out of its way, only lean further into it.  The result is a frustrating experience of wanting to lift up the inventive facets of this independent horror film, which are indeed imaginative, while also considering that perhaps there is something to be said about straying into territory that repulses rather than frightens. 

Losing her hearing as a child comes as a devastating blow to Alexis, especially seeing that it comes right as she is moving into adolescence and during a difficult time for her family.  It’s the result of an unthinkable tragedy that she miraculously regains her hearing…and more.  Now she experiences not just aural sensations but a visual one as well, bursts of color and hued designs leap into her mind when she hears noises associated with brutality or bloodshed.  It’s a type of stimulation known as synesthesia and Alexis is experiencing the version that produces color when her cognitive pathway to sound is fueled.    

As an adult, Alexis (Jasmin Savoy Brown) has become intent on studying the power of sound, mixing her own music as an experimental musician in the evenings while paying her bills as a part-time DJ.  She’s also a TA in a local college, giving her the opportunity and access to equipment she can use to fine tune her thesis.  With the help of her roommate Marie (Lili Simmons), Alexis visits a dominatrix to record her session with a customer wanting to be whipped and it’s here where her condition leads her to a precipice.  She begins to understand that the more violent the sound, the deeper the sensation in her mind and the better recordings she can make.

Noyer’s film is inspired by his original short film form 2018, Conductor, in which the character of Alexis plays a minor but pivotal role.  By expanding on her here and investigating who she is, he dispels much of the mystery of his well-regarded short and I’m not sure that serves either film very well.  The further Alexis goes in her commitment to creating her music (which, by the way, sounds like total trash…which, maybe is the point?) the more removed the audience becomes from her.  Not that we are supposed to be invested in her (or like her) but if Noyer wants us to remain engaged we have to find some thread about the leading character that keeps us involved. 

The most interesting person on screen is (and this is no knock to Brown who is overall fantastic as Alexis) is Simmons as Alexis’ roommate who doesn’t see that her friend is a dangerous psychopath who lures homeless men into a grotesque death trap and, in the film’s showstopper, somehow drugs a harpist into literally playing until the flesh comes off her fingers. Simmons handles the slow build of not accepting her long time friend is capable of undertaking such atrocities well, you can see the gradual realization of who Alexis really is weigh heavily on her. By the time we get to the finale on the beach (what’s it with movies with shocker endings on beaches?  This and Saint Maud both must have it in for sandcastles) nothing you see or hear is much of a surprise, though give both actresses credit for going full-out in a tricky juggling act to close out their movie.

There’s definitely something alive in Noyer’s film and director’s eye but Sound of Violence happens to turn the dial up a few notches too far.  It’s sure to please fans of garage metal music and ultra-violent horror films with little redemptive qualities for any of the characters but I wanted more balance to the madness, more examination of the character behind the crimes.  There’s an over eagerness to get to the violence after a while and that grows tiring when you can see the director and actors are worthy of more.

Movie Review ~ Dream Horse

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A Welsh cleaner and bartender persuades her neighbors and friends to contribute financially to breed and rear a racehorse. The group’s unlikely investment plan pays off as the horse rises through the ranks and puts them in a race for the national championship.

Stars: Toni Collette, Damian Lewis, Owen Teale, Joanna Page, Nicholas Farrell, Siân Phillips, Karl Johnson

Director: Euros Lyn

Rated: PG

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  When settling down to watch this quaint, PG-rated bit of molasses, I suddenly felt the urge to seek out a skein of yarn and start to knit a very large, comfy sweater.  There’s something about the tiny Welsh village setting, gentle plot mechanics, and, if not vibrantly colorful, then slightly washed-out characters which just calls for a knit one, pearl two pattern to keep your hands busy.  It will at least keep your mind from drifting too far away from Dream Horse which feels like a movie that’s been around the track a few times and is almost ready to be put out to pasture.  However, like many final laps, this one rallies at the most important moments and reminds you why the structure has worked so well time after time.

I remember seeing ads for Dream Horse last year before all the release dates shifted and I give credit to its US distributor Bleecker Street for holding on to it a full year after it was originally due to come out.  They could have moved it to a streaming release like many of their higher profile releases (Supernova comes to mind) but instead they’ve let it out of the gate right as vaccinated audiences are being told they can head back to the theater (and follow the mask mandates).  While many viewers will be clamoring for the rock ‘em sock ‘em blockbuster titles, there are a good number who will see this one as a quieter bridge to ease their way into a picture larger than their TV with a soundsystem that goes just a little higher than the one they have in their living rooms.  That it works as a pure audience pleaser at its best moments doesn’t hurt either.

Ah, but does it ever take its time getting there!  I honestly wasn’t sure Dream Horse would ever move from a trot to a full gallop during its first hour which establishes the plan made by supermarket cashier Jan Vokes (Toni Collette, Muriel’s Wedding) to form a racehorse syndicate among a group of villagers in Cefn Fforest, a former mining town in South Wales.  Her vision is to buy a mare and pair it with a thoroughbred racing stallion.  The foal the two horses would produce would be “owned” by the group who would front the costs for all of the expenses it cost to raise the horse.  When the horse grew into its potential, any profits from championships won would be divided among the neighbors.

The script from Neil McKay tends to move quickly over some of the finer details within this initial set-up and doesn’t bother filling in some other gaps along the way (Jan has two children who we never see or hear much of which have left her and husband Brian as empty nesters) and this can be frustrating to a viewer wanting to get more character bang for their buck.  What McKay and director Euros Lyn do like to spend time with is in the mundanity of syndicate meetings that follow the typical trajectory of Jan having to convince those initially hesitant to come onboard only to then almost be ousted from her own group that suddenly feels they know better. 

Often in these sporting films the “sport” winds up being the least interesting thing on screen but in Dream Horse it’s the opposite.  Just as I was thinking the film would be a disappointing misfire, albeit a well-performed and well-intentioned one, Lyn and cinematographer Erik Wilson (Paddington 2) stage the first of several races that will raise your blood pressure far more than you’d expect.  Add in Benjamin Woodgates (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) score which is equal parts rousing and relentless and it creates a feeling like you’re right there cheering from the sidelines.  It creates a dramatically different sensation than the rest of the film, one that invests in emotions almost by accident.

Although the actress is able to disappear into most any working-class role with ease, it’s not quite the performance from Collette I think is in her wheelhouse.  I just didn’t connect with her connection to the horse, only later on when you see how the horse represents something much more than we originally think does it begin to make sense.  During the film’s laudable closing credits (done with gusto in a music hall style sing along) we see some of the real people involved, making one appreciate how well Owen Teale (Tolkien) transformed into the rough and rumpled teddy bear husband of Jan…down to the set of teeth that look assembled from the Tooth Fairy’s junk drawer.  There’s perhaps one too many leads fighting for attention, meaning Damian Lewis (Run This Town) gets overshadowed (unintentionally) by Teale and a few of the more memorable residents of Cefn Fforest.

I’d be lying if I said the final twenty minutes of the movie didn’t aid in almost entirely erasing that first stodgy hour, so while it doesn’t totally wipe the slate clean, Dream Horse crosses the finish line in a well-earned position.  It will at least help others, like me, finish up some knitting projects that went by the wayside if they watch it at home.

Movie Review ~ Dementia: Part II

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When an ex-con takes a job as a handyman for an unstable elderly woman to avoid a parole violation, it becomes a choice he may regret.

Stars: Matt Mercer, Suzanne Voss, Najarra Townsend, Graham Skipper, Stacy Snyder, Teya Wolvington

Director: Matt Mercer & Mike Testin

Rated: NR

Running Length: 67 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.  Wise words and something to keep in mind while watching Dementia Part II, an icky no-budget movie that sprung to life as a challenge made by a film festival to two writer/directors.  Could they produce a film from scratch in five weeks?  If they could, the festival would show whatever they had put together, saving a choice spot for them in their programming.  The creative energy could (and should) have been through the roof on this but instead we have yet another zombie horror/comedy that is a sequel in name only to a 2015 film which has a few cast and crew crossovers.  Ever the completist, I made the effort to watch that earlier movie first and frankly found it to also be fairly lousy but far more competently made than this black and white turkey.

It didn’t start out so bad, I’ll give it that.  Referencing several notable horror films off the bat was a nice touch and that it did it with such clear nods made me feel relaxed enough to hope the filmmakers would temper their sense of humor with some ghoulish frights.  Unfortunately, this good will vanished fast pretty much the moment the credits ended and ex-con Wendell Miska (Matt Mercer) enters the scene.  Struggling to make ends meet because he can’t keep a job, his no BS probation officer (Graham Skipper, amateurish and obnoxious, also an early candidate for worst abuser of the “F” word in film of 2021) is breathing down his neck to get one or face more jail time.

A maintenance gig for an old lady seems to be easy money and Wendell eagerly accepts, but upon arriving and meeting the confused Suzanne Goldblum (Suzanne Voss, The Lords of Salem) he realizes that something isn’t quite right.  Also, he’s creeped out by the picture of her late husband staring at him from the fireplace mantle (don’t worry Wendell, he gives us the skeevie weevies too!) and the way she talks about him like he’s still around.  As she floats in and out of lucidity, stopping only to vomit or secrete some vile substance that somehow winds up in, on, or around Wendell’s mouth, the hapless plumber continues to stick around when he learns there may be money from Suzanne’s late husband stashed around the house.  If he can stay long enough to find out where it is, all his problems should be over, right?  Right?  If only Suzanne didn’t have that nasty bite…and wasn’t slowly turning into a beast hungry for blood…

Returning as co-director, co-writer, and cinematographer, Mike Testin shares head honcho duty with star Mercer and the challenge they delivered on appears to be a film that was meant to be shown at a closing night cast party and not for paying audiences. Barely an hour long, you can hardly even call it a feature film at all…it’s more of a chapter in a longer anthology waiting for more pieces of the puzzle.  It constantly is trying to find out a way to keep Wendell in the house, unsuccessfully convincing us he’d delaying exiting the lady regurgitating bile for as long as he does.  Even the appearance of a mystery woman (value-add Najarra Townsend, The Stylist) claiming to be a relative of Suzanne doesn’t spice things up in the least.  Maybe it’s because everyone in the film is just sort of awful in one way or another, either their character is good but their acting is lousy or they are stuck with a poorly written part but have the acting chops to make something of it. 

Look, give me a no-frills indie that makes the most out of their limitations.  Plenty of great movies have been made with bad budgets and I’m tired of films like Dementia Part II looking so cheap and ugly and then letting the production costs bear the brunt of the criticism.  Looking over the credits for both directors you can see they have experience in this genre – their combined experience should have made this a slam dunk.  The only think clever or interesting about the movie is the poster.  Why they even made it a sequel is beyond me, even the clinical definition for Dementia Part II (or the second stage) doesn’t line up.  The character Voss played in the first film was so minor (a nurse) that I’m wondering why they couldn’t just carry it over here.  It’s just sadly a total wash and not recommended in any way, especially disappointing seeing that the opening hinted there were some cunning cooks in this gory kitchen.