31 Days to Scare ~ Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young mother-to-be grows increasingly suspicious that her overfriendly elderly neighbors and self-involved husband are hatching a satanic plot against her and her baby.
Stars: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy, Patsy Kelly, Angela Dorian, Charles Grodin
Director: Roman Polanski
Rated: Approved
Running Length: 137 minutes
TMMM Score: (10/10)
Review: A sure sign a film is destined for classic status is when it gets better with each viewing. Like great music, sometimes you need time to step back and reflect on the reaction of all your senses before returning to the source to recalibrate your feelings. I’ve started off hating albums that I now can’t live without, and the same goes for movies that didn’t thrill me at first glance, but on repeat watches have found their way into my soul. Part of that comes with understanding the importance of art; the other is an emotional maturity that allows you to appreciate what the given medium is saying and at what time/place it was speaking.

Watching Rosemary’s Baby recently in a theater with a near-capacity crowd, I was struck by how ahead of its time it was. Released in 1968, a year after Ira Levin’s novel of the same name was published, the rights had already been with B-Movie impresario William Castle (I Saw What You Did) since it was in galley form. When Castle brought it to Paramount big wig Robert Evans intending to direct it, he instead saw his movie handed over to European auteur Roman Polanski. As brilliant at marketing a picture as Castle was, even he had to admit that this movie required more than a stock schlock push; it needed the Paramount polish.

Young couple Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse are moving into The Bramford, an impressively imposing but enviable apartment building in the heart of New York City. Like most old buildings, this one comes with a storied history involving witchcraft and Satanism, but that was years ago, and the Woodhouses don’t need to be concerned about any of that…for now. Instead, there is much to be done as Rosemary (Mia Farrow, See No Evil, waifish and wonderful) gets their new home in order while her struggling actor husband Guy (John Cassavetes, The Fury) goes on auditions, hunting for his big break.

Rosemary meets a woman around her age in the spooky basement laundry room, and they hit it off. Friends are hard to come by at The Bramford, though, because not long after, the girl is found dead on the pavement outside, the victim of an apparent suicide. She had been staying with an elderly couple down the hall from Rosemary, and soon Minnie and Roman Castevet have wormed their way into the lives of the Woodhouses, becoming overly gregarious (read, pushy) neighbors they can’t quickly get rid of. Actually, Guy appears to like the Castevets more than Rosemary and begins to spend more time at their place. 

Soon after, Rosemary has a horrific dream of being attacked and violated by a hideous beast. And then she finds out she’s pregnant. And Guy gets his big break…at the severe expense of the health of his closest rival in the acting profession. Rosemary’s world gets smaller the bigger she grows and the more successful Guy becomes until she’s a shadow of her former self. That’s when the paranoia sets in, and her suspicions arise that perhaps her neighbors and husband are conspiring against her…but to what end? With her due date drawing near and options running scarce, Rosemary must decide if she’s going to fight to be a mother or first fight for her life.

Polanski’s first US picture has become an indisputable classic for many reasons, too many to mention here. The highlights are its exquisite production values, filmed on both the East and West Coast. The viewer can hardly tell when the action switches between exteriors in NYC and soundstages in California. The Woodhouse apartment begins dark and confined but is given contemporary life by Rosemary’s good taste and modern sensibilities. The rest of the apartments and owners feel stuck in a different time, and Rosemary represents (and is costumed to look like) the future.

The casting across the board in Rosemary’s Baby is perfect. Relative feature film newcomer Farrow was a risky choice, and while more prominent names were mentioned, sticking with the rising star was a fantastic move. The entire film is told from her perspective, and I’m sure she’s onscreen for nearly all the 137 minutes. Barely any scenes happen without her direct involvement, and you can see why Farrow’s husband at the time, Frank Sinatra, wanted his bride back home so bad that he served her with divorce papers on the set when she kept working instead of returning when he beckoned. How Farrow didn’t wind up with an Oscar nomination is beyond me. Though this was the year of the infamous tie between Barbara Streisand and Katherine Hepburn, Farrow’s name should have been one of the five.

Someone who did take home an Oscar that year was Ruth Gordon for her unforgettable performance as Minnie Castevet. The nosy neighbor is pure “Niw Yahwk,” talks a mile-a-minute, and potentially hides a dark agenda you don’t want to be a part of. Gordon is sensational whenever she is onscreen, and for a role that creates such an energetic whirlwind, she always manages to make her co-stars look good. That’s why she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, one of the most deserved wins ever in the category. I’ve always liked Cassavetes more as a director than an actor, so it’s hard to judge him fully here, especially since he’s playing such a louse…but wow, does he nail it.

Bringing his European ethos to his film, Polanski (Carnage) pushes the boundaries for sex and nudity, making Rosemary’s Baby far more adult than I remembered. There’s a scant amount of blood, with Polanski preferring to let audiences create their own terror but getting more mileage out of the unnerving dream sequences Rosemary has the deeper she falls under The Bramford’s strange spell. They don’t always make sense, but these sequences are surprising and disturbing and achieve the desired effect of keeping the viewer off balance if Polanski wants to keep them on shaky ground. 

When Polanski wants your attention, he knows how to get it. My mind explodes when I think of how audiences in the summer of 1968 reacted to the last 20 minutes of the movie, a tour-de-force of suspense that will make your heart jog right up into your throat. William A. Fraker’s cinematography frames Farrow holding a knife that both reassures you she can defend herself but terrifies you simultaneously because you become acutely aware she (and we) is about to head for an unknown horror. The tail end of the film may be a little soft, but if you’ve been following along the breadcrumbs Polanski dropped (he wrote the screenplay), it should make perfect sense.

I’ve said it before, and it’s worth repeating. Certain movies are classics for a reason, and it often doesn’t take long to figure out why. In both The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, I’ll admit that when I was younger, I came to them expecting to experience horror the same way I was trained to experience it: with it being thrown in my face accompanied by blaring rock music. Now, when I watch both movies, I have to talk myself into it because I know both will keep me up at night. As effective now as it was then, Rosemary’s Baby earns its reputation as an all-time horror classic, a legitimately scary movie for the ages made during a time when the voices of many were struggling to be heard. 

31 Days to Scare ~The Innocents (1961)

The Facts:

Synopsis: An emotionally fragile governess comes to suspect that there is something very, very wrong with her precocious new charges.
Stars: Deborah Kerr, Michael Redgrave, Megs Jenkins, Peter Wyngarde, Pamela Franklin, Martin Stephens
Director: Jack Clayton
Rated: NR
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (10/10)
Review:  Watching suspense thrillers from decades ago today, I often wonder what it must have been like for audiences that hadn’t been pre-conditioned to copious amounts of violence and intense terror onscreen to experience them for the first time.  There’s a vulnerability to sitting with a crowd in a movie theater and being transported into a story that sets out to jangle your nerves and an art to the scare that has gotten lost over the years.  True, many of the same viewers that went to these movies had lived through (or served in) one or more heinous wars, so they were aware of the real-world horrors that were possible.  However, a fair amount hadn’t, so the fear a film could conjure had legitimate power.  So I have to imagine that The Innocents packed a wallop when first released in December 1961. 

An adaptation of the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw, it was brought to the screen by director/producer Jack Clayton who took William Archibald’s pre-existing stage version of James’ ghost story and had Truman Capote revise it for the screen.  Capote, pausing his writing of In Cold Blood to help out his good friend Clayton, imbues the film with its gothic wares, and additional material from John Mortimer makes the dialogue ring even more faithful to its setting in Victorian England.  Add inventive black-and-white cinematography from the legendary Freddie Francis (Nightmare), and The Innocents went into production with a hefty advantage.

A largely faithful re-telling of the novella, The Innocents is the story of a governess hired to care for two orphaned children at the behest of their absent uncle.  Told the former nanny died suddenly, it’s only after she arrives at the uncle’s country manor that the inexperienced (read: repressed) governess finds out the young woman committed suicide and her lover, the valet, also perished around the same time.  When the children start misbehaving in out-of-character ways, the increasingly terrified governess begins to believe the ghosts of the dead are attempting to possess the bodies of the children, and it is her responsibility to protect their souls at all costs…at any cost. 

The original work by Henry James is, on the surface, a spooky ghost story relayed as a Christmas Eve tale literally read aloud by a fire.  The stage adaptation was a popular drawing-room mystery legitimizing what James had only implied.  The screen version imagined by Clayton and Captone is more surreal and ethereal, and that’s why it’s been rightfully knighted as one of the best ghost stories ever.  Even if the audience is often left to make up their mind about what the governess (a luminous Deborah Kerr, The King & I) is seeing and if she’s going mad or truly warding off specters of danger, it’s always clear that some kind of threat is present in the intimidating Bly Manor.

As for scares, it’s incredible how effective The Innocents is over sixty years after its release.  Opening with a long stretch of complete blackness with only a child’s singing as a voiceover, it’s one of the most shiver-inducing beginnings to any horror film ever.  Clayton doesn’t stop there, playing the credits over hands outstretched in prayer that will only make sense later in the movie.  Faces appear in windows, bodies turn up in marshes, and there’s a general sense that anything could be lurking just outside of the glow of the candles used to light the way of the governess as she attempts to find out what’s going bump in the night.  The suspense is doled out with great sophistication, making a watch in 2023 a bona fide nail-biter. Plus, the children (Pamela Franklin and Martin Stephens) are incredibly creepy but darn good actors at the same time.

Attempts would be made for years to remake The Turn of the Screw in multiple forms of media.  There would be additional movies for the big and small screen, an opera, and most recently, The Haunting of Bly Manor, a 2020 Netflix series created by Mike Flanagan.  Hoping to recreate their phenomenal success of the fantastic The Haunting of Hill House, you can see what Flanagan was going for in tackling Henry James, but stretching the story out over multiple hours didn’t work.  This is meant to be a compact, tight story that doesn’t let any air out as it progresses.  If anything, it squeezes tighter as the minutes tick on so that by the end, when it reaches its (some say) ambiguous ending, you can barely catch your breath. 

A must-see for every true fan of the ghost/haunting/suspense genre. 

31 Days to Scare ~ Piranha (1978)


The Facts:

Synopsis: A river is accidentally infested by lethal, genetically altered piranha, threatening the lives of the local inhabitants and the visitors to a nearby summer resort.
Stars: Bradford Dillman, Heather Menzies, Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Barbara Steele, Dick Miller, Belinda Balaski, Melody Thomas, Bruce Gordon, Paul Bartel
Director: Joe Dante
Rated: 94 minutes
Running Length: 94 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  Steven Spielberg’s 1975 summer blockbuster Jaws set a gold standard for underwater creature features, raising the bar to new heights for every filmmaker, producer, and studio ever after.  With the phenomenal success of that great white shark vs. beach community classic came the expected low-grade rip-offs looking for an easy cash-in.  Much like today’s market that sees the release of suspiciously similar-sounding titles/plots as major franchises, most of these bottom-feeding flicks from the past are Z-grade turkeys, deservedly forgotten.  Now and then, you strike gold and find one that puts effort into setting itself apart from the pack, a movie that might have targeted the Jaws fan at first but winds up triumphing despite its B-movie trappings.

A film like Piranha is one of the best examples of a Jaws clone that aims higher than it needs to and reaps the rewards.  Made by schlock producer Roger Corman for his New World Pictures studio and employing his former protégé Joe Dante as director, Piranha had a budget of $600,000 and was fast-tracked to make its release date in late summer of 1978.  That was two short months after Jaws 2 had chomped its way into theaters, proving that sequels to horror films were a viable entity.  (Rumor has it that Jaws 2’s studio wanted to sue Corman for copyright infringement, but Spielberg liked Piranha so much he asked them to back off).

One need only look at the fabulous poster (also featured on the clamshell VHS box that would scare me for years at the video store), and you can see how Corman mined the Jaws fandom to get butts into seats.  Once there, however, Dante’s direction of John Sayles’ screenplay would keep eyes glued to the screen for what is still a well-made, decently paced, frequently scary, enjoyably campy creature feature.  The 4K restoration from Shout Factory shows how nicely Dante and cinematographer Jamie Anderson (What’s Love Got to Do with It) present the terror from below and capture propulsive action above the water.

When two hikers go missing near Lost River Lake, TX, private investigator Maggie (Heather Menzies) arrives to track them down.  Needing help navigating the area, she comes across the secluded cabin of Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman), who tells her about an abandoned army testing site nearby.  The divorced, unemployed Grogan wants to be left in peace to drink the day away, but the free-spirited Maggie drags him along to help her locate the military base and its large pool that must be drained into Lost River Lake for evidence. 

Flipping the switch to drain the pool is a colossal mistake because it held scores of mutant piranhas capable of multiplying at a deadly rate.  And now they are free in the open water that will eventually flow into the ocean First, they will pass a camp for young children and a lakeside resort on its launch day.  Forced to navigate the river on a makeshift raft, Maggie and Paul must fend off the piranha and the obligatory staunch military personnel arriving to keep the incident hush-hush.  If they can avoid being caught or turning into fish food, they will also have to find a way to convince the public to get out of the water to avoid a cloud of razor-sharp teeth swimming their way.

As he would demonstrate later in 1980’s Alligator (another stellar Jaws rip-off) and again when working with Dante in 1981’s The Howling, screenwriter Sayles has a real art for making the ridiculous sound somewhat plausible, if only for the short time you are watching the film.  The mechanics of Piranha don’t hold up if you sit down and think about it (notably the finale), but it’s a guaranteed good time while you’re involved with it.  It helps that Dillman and especially Menzies have screen charisma that you can’t help but want to engage with and a fair amount of chemistry for whatever forced lovey-dovey tripe the movie somewhat forces on them.

Did I mention that the movie is scary?  I had forgotten how disturbing some of the attacks are, namely the one involving children at a summer camp that seems to go on for longer than we ever would allow today.  That’s also the one that has an image of a victim being taken away to the depths that still gives me the willies today.  Dante had a talent for screen composition even then, creating memorable visuals that linger in your mind and are instantly associated with his movies.  That shorthand calling card made him a sought-after director, and I’m pretty sure he perfected it from his time working with Corman.  Is it any wonder that Dante is among many award-winning directors who started with Corman?  Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, and James Cameron all took part in Corman features as they rose in the ranks.

Speaking of Cameron, he’d be behind the camera (how long is up for debate) on Piranha II: The Spawning in 1982.  That’s a silly sequel if you ask me, and I can’t even discuss the two 3D updates, 2010’s Piranha 3D and 2012’s Piranha 3DD, because they are gonzo exercises in goofball tomfoolery.  There’s also a bland TV remake that’s not worth any effort, even on a lark.  Stick with the original, and you’ll be in for a scary skinny dip.   

31 Days to Scare ~ The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Three single women in a picturesque village have their wishes granted, at a cost, when a mysterious and flamboyant man arrives in their lives.
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, Veronica Cartwright, Richard Jenkins, Keith Jochim, Carel Struycken
Director: George Miller
Rated: R
Running Length: 118 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: In 1988, renting a movie was quite different than it is now. Back then, before the huge corporate video chains, due to the expense of just one tape, small stores would only be able to get one or two copies of a VHS, and demand was sky-high for the latest release. In most locations, you put your name on the reserve list and waited in line. Sometimes, you’d luck out, and your name would come up on a Friday or Saturday night, and you’d be set for the hottest title, or you could be stuck trying to plead with your parents to let you bike over to pick up your reserve on a school night.

My eight-year-old brain only needed to see Michelle Pfeiffer (my love of Grease 2 was at peak fervor), and I got my name on the reservation list for The Witches of Eastwick quickly. I then spent the next three weeks calling daily to ask where I was on the list and, wouldn’t you know it, I got the call on a Saturday evening. Perfection. That meant I had Saturday night and most of Sunday to take in this supernatural comedy with plenty of adult material that went straight over my head. It remained a favorite of mine to watch on cable over time, and as I got older, I could focus on the non-Pfeiffer parts, appreciating the sly mix of horror and fantasy, not to mention the delicious performances of a divine cast.

Adapting the 1984 novel by John Updike, screenwriter Michael Cristofer took a looser approach to Updike’s more straightforward story of three women in a small New England town who come under the spell of a devilish newcomer who meets their every wish in a romantic partner. All three women have different desires and unfilled needs that are suddenly, surprisingly, met. As their relationship with the man deepens, an awakening occurs that surprises and scares them. When they realize they may have fallen for the devil himself, and he’s using them to create mayhem with even more wicked tumult planned, they bond together and use their newfound powers to send him packing.

Updike’s novel was considerably more pro-feminist than his previous works. However, it was seen in some circles as stereotyping women as literal witches who depend on a man for satisfaction. By making a few tweaks, Cristofer (The Night Clerk) establishes the women at the outset as independent entities that happen to be enriched (or, in some cases, enhanced) when they meet the man of their collective dreams. It also helps that director George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road, Babe) worked with four fantastic talents, an enviable quartet that certainly made the film a box-office smash and has kept it a popular title for nearly forty years since it was released.

Though Jack Nicholson (Terms of Endearment) gets top billing (and as the biggest box office star at the time, deservedly so) as the mysterious Daryl Van Horne, it’s Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Pfeiffer that positively make the movie a treat to revisit at any time of year. Even though her acting career had initially been tentative, Cher knew how to pick projects. Oscar-nominated for 1983’s Silkwood and unjustly passed over for a nom in 1985 for Mask, 1987 was the year that Cher came on with a vengeance. The Witches of Eastwick arrived in June, murder-mystery Suspect came out in October, and her Oscar-winning performance in Moonstruck would be seen in December. She’s perfect as Alex, a headstrong sculptress who finds a refreshing way of letting go of control with Daryl.

Initially arriving on set thinking she had Cher’s part (can you imagine this happening today?), Sarandon (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) was the most experienced actress of the three. She easily slipped into the role of Jane, the mousy music teacher who gets her strings exquisitely plucked by Daryl. Pfeiffer’s single mother is admittedly the least sketched out, and I get the feeling the character was written to be a little daffier, but tonally, it didn’t work, so this was refined to be more “free-spirited.”  Her seduction by Nicholson (with whom she would reteam in 1994’s Wolf) is believable and, ultimately, frightening.

With the help of the Oscar-nominated score by John Williams (one of his best!), the first hour or so of The Witches of Eastwick is light and airy, with Miller embracing the vibe of the tiny East Coast town and some of its oddball inhabitants. As the women become friendlier with Daryl, things grow darker, and we see the effect it has on the buttoned-up Felicia (Veronica Cartwright, Alien), who gets on the wrong side of Daryl by targeting his women. The closer they get, the more Felicia spirals off the deep end, almost possessed by a niggling rage she can’t control or understand. In another year, Cartwright might have been mentioned as a Best Supporting Actress nominee for her go-for-broke performance that gets weirder and more terrifying as the film continues.

Audiences helped make The Witches of Eastwick one of the top-grossing movies of 1987, and when it was released on VHS in 1988, it continued to do strong business as a rental. If critics embraced the performances and Miller’s filmmaking, they had issues with the effects-heavy finale that may seem like it comes out of nowhere, but it’s the only place the film can go to close the loop on what it has nicely set up. (I love it and can’t wait for it to arrive.) In fact, there are several fun visual effects sequences, from a tennis game that goes awry to an impromptu flying session, that show that creative usage of technology can gently bolster what is already a well-made film. The final shot is a tad lackluster, but it’s forgivable because the other 117 minutes are a complete delight.

In the years since, the legacy of the novel and the movie have inspired several attempts to revive the story as a television series and one musical that has a decent score but couldn’t survive outside of London, where it is most often revived. I always wonder if they’ll ever try to turn this into a limited series for Netflix or Amazon — in the right hands, it may be worth another look, but Miller and co. did such a fine job with this cozy 1987 film that I wouldn’t want it to be diminished in any way. It makes for a nice Halloween watch if you are going for light scares, but any time of year is fine to visit The Witches of Eastwick.

Movie Review ~ The Killer (2023)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a fateful near miss, an assassin battles his employers and himself on an international manhunt he insists isn’t personal.
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Arliss Howard, Charles Parnell, Kerry O’Malley, Sala Baker, Sophie Charlotte, Tilda Swinton
Director: David Fincher
Rated: R
Running Length: 118 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: Until recently, I had come to terms with the bitter truth that the David Fincher I wanted as a director wasn’t coming back. The David Fincher I was looking for was the filmmaker who gave us meaty thrillers like The Game, Panic Room, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and his great unheralded classic, Zodiac. These were twisty mysteries that were cool to the touch but executed with the efficiency of a surgeon who could operate on the brain with their eyes closed. Fincher had the magic hand, and while we were briefly teased with that talent again in 2104 with Gone Girl and partially with the creation of Mindhunter for Netflix, it vanished into the ether as Fincher focused more on passion projects.

As an artist matures, it’s natural that they want to grow in their craft, and the more they are established, the more they want to work on projects that mean something to them. The problem with that, at least in the film world, is that when a director (or an actor) has attained a following and then veers off course or disappears altogether, it can be hard to keep up with the scent once it’s gone cold. Lauded, though he was over the years, it wasn’t until 2020’s more serious Mank that Fincher made it into Oscar’s golden glow…but it was also his most commercially aloof work yet. 

If you’d forgotten when David Fincher was cool (Fight Club cool), you’re about to have your memory jogged with the release of The Killer. Fincher’s newest film is an adaptation of a French graphic novel that began in 1998 and concluded in 2014, and it reteams him with Andrew Kevin Walker, his screenwriter for his breakthrough hit, 1995’s Seven. Razor sharp and ice cold (dress warm when you see it), like all of Fincher’s films, it’s a technically flawless achievement in entertainment that draws you in despite the best efforts of its central character to keep you at arm’s length. It’s a lean and mean machine of a film that puts Fincher right back on top.

A nameless assassin (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus) waits in an abandoned WeWork office space in Paris. The who, what, when, and why of his assignment aren’t known to us, so while the camera follows his daily routine, we hear his voiceover, dissecting the job and his life. Is this how he keeps himself (relatively) sane during these long periods of waiting for his mark? How many years has he rehearsed this speech and gone over it in his head? Walker’s script gives us the bare minimum of info about the assassin, just that he’s good at his job and is not above turning the tables if retribution is necessary.

You see, he’s made a costly error, and the client is demanding some recompense. That recompense is a cost the assassin isn’t willing to accept, and it sets him on a mission to make a handful of people very sorry they felt the need to make it personal. He’s not making it personal, mind you, but he will ensure that this type of response doesn’t happen again.

Cleverly finding ways to get close to his targets and extracting information by any means necessary before moving on, he leaves no debt unpaid and calculates each move as he was trained to do.   Running into characters identified as The Brute (Sala Baker, Bullet Train, who engages Fassbender in a bone-crunching face-off), The Expert (Tilda Swinton, Asteroid City, swinging by for a whiskey-swigging cameo), The Lawyer (Charles Parnell, Top Gun: Maverick) and The Client (Arliss Howard, Concussion) throughout the film that’s divided into distinct chapters by Walker gives the movie a bit of an episodic feel that can halt some momentum, but The Killer practically radiates BDE.

Initially announced in 2007 for Fincher with Brad Pitt’s production company, I don’t doubt Pitt was considering taking on the titular role, but Fassbender is unquestionably the better option. There’s a way Fassbender can play a blank that still retains a decent amount of emotion; his handling of an unyielding commitment to carry out violence could read psychotic, but there’s more life behind the eyes that keeps the character innately human. The lack of emotion works most of the time, but you wish that when someone arrives ready to play like Swinton always does, she sits across from a character at a different stage in his journey. Their scene is the only disappointment in the film, though it did make me wonder what it would have been like to have Swinton as the lead…

Clocking in just under two hours, there’s an unmistakable sense of glee attached to the otherwise dark goings-on in The Killer. I think that’s mostly Fincher stretching these thrilling thriller muscles again, even starting with a brief opening credit scene that, while not as extensive or detailed as he has done in the past, still takes time to set the titles apart from the specific action of the movie. Up until this point in 2023, we’ve had many exciting movies released from reputable directors, but coming into the last few months of the year, the big guns are coming out, and Fincher’s The Killer has taken aim and hit the bullseye. 

Movie Review ~ Anatomy of a Fall

The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman is suspected of her husband’s murder, and their blind son faces a moral dilemma as the sole witness.
Stars: Sandra Hüller, Samuel Theis, Swann Arlaud, Jehnny Beth, Milo Machado Graner, Saadia Bentaïeb, Antoine Reinartz, Camille Rutherford
Director: Justine Triet
Rated: R
Running Length: 152 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: I began my time at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival with a whopper of an early morning doubleheader that covered a lot of bases and checked several boxes. Both were films that finished in the top two spots at the Cannes Film Festival a few months earlier, and both starred Sandra Hüller in roles that are bound to be galvanizing to audiences and catnip to critics. The first was Justine Triet’s Anatomy of Fall, winner of the Palme d’Or (the highest honor) at Cannes, and the second was The Zone of Interest from Jonathan Glazer, winner of the Grand Prix (second place). We’ll talk about The Zone of Interest more in December, but with Anatomy of a Fall getting a limited release now, it’s time to look at this family drama courtroom thriller, which will send you reeling.

Sandra (Hüller, Sleep) is being interviewed by Zoé (Camille Rutherford), a student at the home she shares with her husband and young son in the French Alps. The playful banter is going well until Sandra’s husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) starts to play his music so loud the two women can’t hear one another. (Note to those easily earworm-ed: the song is an instrumental cover of 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P. by German funk group Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band, and it will live in your head for WEEKS) The more they try to converse, the louder Samuel turns up the music. The passive-aggressive action ends the interview early, but Sandra suggests she get together with Zoé again to finish.

That raincheck never happens because later that afternoon, Samuel is discovered on the ground outside, dead from a fall from his upstairs window. Discovered by his visually impaired son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) and the family dog, they need to wake up Sandra, who has been asleep inside this whole time. The authorities come, Vincent (Swann Arlaud), a family friend with legal experience arrives, and what looks like a tragic accident is at first filed away as such. And yet, eventually, the French legal system gets involved and puts Sandra, a German, on trial for the murder of her husband. Did she push him out of the window after a fight? Did he jump? Did he fall? 

With language as a barrier (the court requires Sandra to testify in French, though German and English are her preferred methods of communication) and a misogynistic system seizing every crack in her marriage as evidence of her guilt, how can Sandra prove innocence when her defense continues to disintegrate? Doubt even enters the mind of her son, who is already struggling to make sense of confrontations between his parents that point toward violence. How much can the public ever know about a private relationship when viewed from the outside in?

Triet poses enticing questions throughout Anatomy of a Fall, and the discussions of them by the characters are so rich that it doesn’t matter if she fully answers them or not by the end. That’s part of the deep resonance of the world she’s created: the human realities of the tragedy that happens initially to the family and the possibly more devastating fallout after the fact. It’s as if Triet is asking, through the lens of a polarizing courtroom thriller, the cost of over-examining personal flaws and using those as evidence of guilt in a more significant crime. 

Running 2 ½ hours, you’d never know it because of the breathless pacing in Anatomy of a Fall and because Triet kept the question of guilt up in the air for so long. How the verdict falls is for you to experience, but it’s almost beside the point by the time we get there. Triet and Hüller have given you enough evidence through performance and narrative structure by that time for you to make up your mind about what you believe. Even an explanation as a summary near the very end doesn’t quite seem like it closes the book on the subject. 

For a movie to leave you with more questions than you started with, and gladly, is rare, and for an audience to leave satisfied with that outcome is even more unique. Yet Anatomy of a Fall does just that, and it’s how it played to such success on the festival circuit and why it emerged as one of the best films of 2023.

31 Days to Scare ~ Vacancy (2007)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A married couple is stranded at an isolated motel after their car breaks down and is soon stalked by masked killers for their snuff films.
Stars: Kate Beckinsale, Luke Wilson, Frank Whaley, Ethan Embry
Director: Nimród Antal
Rated: R
Running Length: 85 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: As the market became saturated with run-of-the-mill horror leftovers in the later part of the 2000s, it became imperative to stand out from the crowd. Recycled plots and familiar characters wouldn’t do; audiences may be easy to please, but they asked for entertainment that considered their evolving tastes. While streaming/on-demand services weren’t yet on the horizon, giving viewers the ability to quickly drop out of movies that weren’t hitting the mark, it was increasingly clear that in this genre, first impressions were everything. 

So, it bodes well for director Nimród Antal (Predators) to start Vacancy with such a tremendous bang. Something as simple as a tension-building credits sequence helps this fast-paced thriller hit the ground running and never stop for 85 minutes. A more subdued introduction with drawn-out exposition may have been the traditional way of turning up the heat. However, armed with Mark L. Smith’s (Overlord) tight script, game performances from a tiny company of actors, and noted Tarantino cinematographer Andrzej Sekula (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs), Antal opts for an early check-in to Vacancy’s chills.

It’s already been a long night for David and Amy Fox. Putting on fake smiles at a family gathering, the couple in turmoil have exhausted their attempts to make their marriage work and are headed for divorce. Attempting a shortcut, David (Luke Wilson, 12 Mighty Orphans) makes a wrong turn off the highway and, when their car starts having issues, feels Amy’s (Kate Beckinsale, Total Recall) withering glare. Luckily, they remember passing an automotive repair shop next to a disarming roadside motel with a mechanic (Ethan Embry, First Man) still on duty. A series of events leads them to be forced to spend the night at the motel, which is run by the polite, if slightly creepy, Mason (Frank Whaley, The Shed).

As the Foxes prepare for an uncomfortable night stuck in the middle of nowhere, natural curiosity has David looking around their kitschy room. Amongst the dated décor and musty sheets is a video, and it’s far from the exciting home movie he thinks he’ll find when he pops it into the available player. The tape depicts a violent murder in the same room, one of many committed on the premises by a team of killers who like to document their brutal slayings. With secret ways into the room that don’t involve a lock and key, they’ll eventually find their way to David and Amy, but can the troubled couple put their differences aside and survive the night?

All four actors handle their roles with style, especially Wilson and Beckinsale, who must apply a certain amount of uncomfortable pressure to their characters in Vacancy early on as a couple that could appear unlikable. The situation they are in obviously brings them closer together, but it also asks them to renew their trust in one another along the way. Whaley and Embry are good at giving off scary energy; proper menace doled out with just the right dash of camp.    

The premise of Vacancy requires a decent amount of chess pieces to be placed on the board before the game can truly begin. Yet that opening sequence has set us on edge, so we have braced ourselves from the beginning for something to happen. Like The Strangers, which arrived a year later, Vacancy’s scares often rely not on the danger of leaping onto the screen from off-camera but on the terror gradually making itself known from a distance. The longer the characters don’t see the menace coming toward them, the more our hearts race, and we yell back at the screen for them to turn around. 

Short enough to fit into a Halloween marathon as a late-night add-on that you won’t conk out in, Vacancy delivers plenty of fun thrills during its brief runtime. Through the confident direction of an airtight script, it succeeds not just on a technical level but through performances that elevate it from cheap drive-in schlock. It just works terrifically well and isn’t afraid to make an effort to frighten you. That’s a movie worth making a reservation for.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Strangers (2008)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young couple staying in an isolated vacation home is terrorized by three unknown assailants.
Stars: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Glenn Howerton, Gemma Ward, Laura Margolis, Kip Weeks
Director: Bryan Bertino
Rated: R
Running Length: 85 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I made a strategic error when I first saw The Strangers in theaters during the summer of 2008.  Somehow, I had missed catching it during its time in first-run houses, and when I noticed it was the late-night offering at the neighborhood second run (Riverview Theater – a classic!) I took advantage of the nice July weather, walked several blocks, and saved some gas—big mistake.  Two hours later, I was a jittery Ichabod Crane nervously trying to get home as fast as possible.

Even though it was just as dark going to the movie as it was coming back, Bryan Bertino’s home-invasion horror rattled me so much that every rush of wind through the trees gave me chills, and each twig snap made me jump in fright.  A week later, The Strangers was still playing at The Riverview, and having enjoyed it so much the first time; I roped a few friends to go back with me and see it for a second time.  We drove. 

Watching The Strangers again recently reminded me of the lasting willies it leaves the audience with; real-world scares that extend out from the screen and up your spine.  Like a few movies I’ve covered this year, it’s an often bleak experience that rides a fine line of going too far, and though writer/director Bertino demonstrates that he knows when to rein it in, it’s not before a tremendous amount of pain is inflicted on a young couple who are terrorized in their home by a creepy trio that appears to have no motivation to stop by.

Returning in the wee hours of the morning to their isolated home after a wedding, something is amiss between Kristen (Liv Tyler, Ad Astra) and James (Scott Speedman, Run This Town).  Their relationship is at a turning point, but it’s far too late (early?) to figure things out.  All both want to do is find what little normalcy they can still grab ahold of in the comfort of their home, but a knock on the door interrupts any plans to keep the outside world silent.  On the other side of the door is a woman at the wrong address who won’t go away despite Kristen and James insisting she continue her search elsewhere.  She does eventually go away, but loud noises around the compound and other outside distractions suggest she’s not alone…and the couple begins to wonder how secure their house has been this whole time.

At 85 minutes, Bertino manages to take his time to let this story develop.  There are many silent exchanges between Tyler and Speedman’s characters to establish their relationship, freeing them from the pitfalls that come with a weaker screenplay’s forced exposition.  Instead, Bertino allows us to get to know the couple more through their resilience during a nightmare than upfront before everything goes haywire.  Speedman and Tyler are terrific as adults who are intelligent enough to figure out the danger afoot but not quick enough to outmaneuver a trio of killers more experienced in this type of gameplay.

I appreciated the simple way Bertino (The Dark and the Wicked) and late cinematographer Peter Sova let some of the scariest moments play out, with the horror gradually focusing in the frame or being noticed by the characters.  It’s often more effective than a one-and-done jump scare (of which there are a few doozies!), and editor Kevin Greutert (who graduated the following year to direct three Saw films, including the recent Saw X) cuts these sequences beautifully.  Horror films can sometimes struggle with sticking the ending, but no matter what you think of the finale, Bertino has rounded out any rough edges before the night is through.

It took a decade for a long-anticipated sequel to arrive, and The Strangers: Prey at Night is another terrifying encounter with the three masked assailants.  As sequels do, it provides a more expansive world for the murderers to play in, but thankfully, it doesn’t lose sight of what made the original so scary.  In 2024, expect more Strangers activity when director Renny Harlin begins releasing his trilogy of films that were made back-to-back.  The announcement that these new Strangers films were arriving was a bit of a surprise, but with Harlin at the helm, it could be a bloody good time.  For several reasons, I’ll never forget my first run-in with The Strangers, and you should make it a memorable experience, too, whether seeing it for the first time or circling back to it.

31 Days to Scare ~ When Evil Lurks

The Facts:

Synopsis: The residents of a small rural town in Argentina discover that a demon is about to be born among them and desperately try to escape — but it may be too late.
Stars: Ezequiel Rodriguez, Demián Salomon, Luis Ziembrowski, Silvia Sabater, Marcelo Michinaux
Director: Demián Rugna
Rated: NR
Running Length: 99 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Earlier this month, director David Gordon Green and Blumhouse attempted to work their trilogy reboot magic again with The Exorcist: Believer. However, unlike their 2018 Halloween, which benefitted from a clever hook that even enticed scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis back, this was an uninspired continuation of a franchise that never called out for the same kind of refurbishment. While it took Green and his collaborators two Halloween sequels in 2021 and 2022 to sink their once seaworthy ship, their first chapter of a proposed Exorcist trilogy didn’t even make it out of port.

Released on the same day as The Exorcist: Believer in a tiny number of theaters and making its streaming debut on Shudder on October 27, right in time for Halloween is When Evil Lurks, a far superior tale of demonic possession and the effect it has on a community gripped with fear. After generating good notices in its pre-release festival run (it was one of the Midnight Madness showings at TIFF that I balked at the last minute, unable to make it my seventh movie of the day), this intense supernatural horror film from Argentinean writer/director Demián Rugna could be 2023’s cruelest form of entertainment. Still, it would be a mistake to miss it.

In the dark of night, brothers Pedro (Ezequiel Rodriguez) and Jimmy (Demian Salomon) hear shots at their secluded farmhouse in Argentina but are wary of investigating the neighboring forest until the sun rises. When they venture out the next day, they find a horrific scene that leads them to a neighboring farm and discover that one of the inhabitants has turned “rotten” (their term for possessed). In this land, there are rules for dealing with the rotten that must be strictly adhered to, or else whatever evil has taken over the host will likely reach out and snare the offender. 

Hoping to relieve their people and the vicinity of an evil manifesting outwardly through grotesque skin and other bodily deformations in the neighbor, the brothers work with another landowner to move the afflicted to a different part of the county. As you can imagine, this only compounds the problem, and before Pedro and Jimmy know it, their friends and family fall victim to violent deaths or heinous acts of aggression through a force that no regular entity cannot stop. Seeking safety with Mirtha (Silvina Sabater), an experienced “cleaner” of the rotten, provides some relief, but only briefly because once evil has put its mark on you, it won’t stop until it has what it wants.

While it takes some time to ramp up to its full volume, the sense of dread in When Evil Lurks is festering almost from the get-go. Sure, the initial ghastly discovery that Pedro and Jimmy make is enough to make you wince, and the sight of the neighbor, oozing pus and other slime from orifices will fortify your stomach. However, when Rugna flips the switch on to truly go for the jugular, all bets are off. Much of the violence is so shockingly out of nowhere that you can’t help but gasp in horror, mainly at the filmmaker’s audacity for turning traditional norms on their ear.   

When you sense blood is about to be shed, editor Lionel Cornistein mines significant tension out of Rugna and cinematographer Mariano Suárez’s well-shot visuals. What may look innocent and blithe can turn on a dime, revealing a snarling nightmare that can be hard to shake. I wound up watching this one late at night (too late) and regretted having to turn off the lights so soon after the credits had finished. It’s an unsettling movie visually and thematically, with a bleak outlook on the world that offers each life an equal opportunity to get cut down. That gives it the ability to surprise and shock in the same breath.

What The Exorcist: Believer missed out on were the lasting frights that made the 1973 film it follows such an everlasting classic. The Exorcist was scary then, and it remains scary now because it defied what audiences expected to see onscreen, throwing them for a loop. In the same way, When Evil Lurks can gnaw at your bones after burrowing through your flesh as you begin to see that, like death, it doesn’t play favorites. Everyone is prey; it’s just a matter of when and how. That’s where the true horror lies.

31 Days to Scare ~ Who Invited Them (2022)


The Facts:

Synopsis: Adam and Margo’s housewarming party goes well enough, except this one mysterious couple is lingering after the other guests have left.
Stars: Ryan Hansen, Melissa Tang, Timothy Granaderos, Perry Mattfeld, Tipper Newton, Barry Rothbart
Director: Duncan Birmingham
Rated: NR
Running Length: 81 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: I tell ya, throwing a party can be murder, am I right? Confirm you have the right people invited, plan the correct amount of food to prepare/order, and ensure you are well-stocked with drinks so the night doesn’t run dry too early. These should all be on your list. A lot of work goes into being a host, so much so that you often can’t fully engage in the celebratory nature of the event itself. Your time is limited, and depending on how much of the night you are responsible for, you could juggle several different spinning plates at once. Who hasn’t held a shindig and realized later that people attended they never even saw or knew were there? 

There are additional distractions for the main characters in Who Invited Them, a compact little chiller that debuted in 2022 on the streaming service Shudder. They are holding a party to show off their new home in the desirable hills of Los Angeles and are still settling into their new surroundings and neighborhood. There’s also a lingering fear from Margo (Melissa Tang, A Good Day to Die Hard) that her husband Adam (Ryan Hansen, Like a Boss) is over his head with this purchase and that the impulse buy may have been a vain attempt to impress the director of his company and their friends. The initial feeling we get from Adam is of an obvious try-hard who talks a big talk but overlooks the eye-rolls the moment he turns his back.

As they move through the party separately, both Adam and Margo take note of a good-looking couple that neither recognizes. Adam assumes they are friends of Margo’s, and she thinks they are work colleagues of Adam’s. A friend of Margo’s later catches the man (Timothy Granaderos, Devil’s Workshop) in a part of the house he shouldn’t be in while the woman (Perry Mattfeld) waits nearby. Though it’s not late, the other guests drift away, having made their obligatory appearance, leaving Adam and Margo alone in the home…or so they think.

The man and woman neither of them knows are discovered in their house, apparently having lost track of time and not knowing the party had ended. When questioned by Adam and Margo, they identify themselves as Tom and Sasha, neighbors from down the block who had stopped by to complain because their car was blocked by one of the guests but instead decided to go with the flow and wait it out. Since the night was still young, would a friendly drink between new neighbors be out of the question? It’s an invitation that Adam and Margo will wish they hadn’t accepted.

Writer/director Duncan Birmingham has assembled a tidy thriller that doesn’t show all its cards immediately, though you think you may know where the evening is headed. A handful of twists get thrown out in Who Invited Them, which work to varying degrees of success, but the performances keep Who Invited Them from lingering too low to the ground. Hansen and Tang work believably as a couple who already feel uneasy in their current situation, so as the tension gets ratcheted up, it doesn’t take much to play with their fears. I also liked what Granaderos and Mattfeld serve: equal parts manipulation of the truth and an outright grift based on lies. Both must tread a fine line without losing momentum and pull it off without hinting at what might be their motivation.

If Who Invited Them starts to get a little monotonous as it passes the sixty-minute mark, it’s because it feels like this started as a short that was expanded into a feature-length film. Why else would there be an entire secondary storyline involving a friend of the main couple (Tipper Newton, Southbound, who is otherwise a terrific breath of fresh air) that feels tacked onto the action with a glue stick? Then there’s the ending that, although pulse-quickening, feels like it was created by a violence-hungry focus group, a far cry from the tightly wound tension builder we’d experienced until that point. 

I had passed Who Invited Them over several times, even after reading good notices, but I’m glad I finally took the plunge. It’s a trim home invasion thriller that benefits significantly from its actors and Birmingham’s easy set-up. It’s the knocking down that isn’t as graceful as the building up was. Even so, it’s leagues better than many Shudder originals and a devilishly engaging option for a dark and rainy night.