31 Days to Scare ~ Scream (1996)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A year after the murder of her mother, a teenage girl is terrorized by a new killer, who targets the girl and her friends by using horror films as part of a deadly game.

Stars: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Skeet Ulrich, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Jamie Kennedy, Drew Barrymore, W. Earl Brown, Henry Winkler, Liev Schreiber

Director: Wes Craven

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: Do you remember where you were when you first saw the original Scream?  I sure do.  I snuck into it at Centennial Lakes 8 after seeing the Eddie Murphy stinker Metro the week that movie arrived in mid-January 1997.  Scream had already been out for several weeks, and I’d heard a bit of buzz about it but releasing on December 20, 1996 during the Christmas holiday it was just starting to get that word of mouth build that would catapult it to the phenomenon it would become.  That particular night I just needed another movie to see to complete a double feature so I could feel I was getting some return on my high school allowance.  Almost as a second thought and seeing that the previews were starting, I ducked into the tiny theater it was playing and sat with the half full audience for a 9:30pm showing.

That’s my Scream origin story and it’s special to me because I’ll never forget what it was like to leave that theater (one of my favorites, RIP Centennial Lakes) so energized by a genre film that felt as if it not only knew what it was doing but knew the audience that was hungry for it.  This wasn’t some half-baked studio dreck which left out the brains with the kills or was just a series of random boobies and ugly gore coupled with an uninteresting story.  Instead, screenwriter Kevin Williamson took his own clear love for scary movies and wrote a script that acknowledged their existence with rules that came close to breaking the fourth wall while creating his own stealthy serial killer tale where no one was safe from bloody elimination.  To put a cherry on top of the already calorie rich sundae, genre icon Wes Craven directed it.  Delicious.

After a teenager and her boyfriend are brutally murdered by someone wearing a masked costume, the town of Woodsboro is on high alert.  After all, the one-year anniversary of the murder of Maureen Prescott is closing in, a date her daughter Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell, Skyscraper) is dreading.  Trying to distract herself by focusing on time with her boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich, As Good As It Gets) and their group of friends, Sidney soon becomes the target for the killer and learns this masked maniac might be involved with the death of her mom as well.  With bodies piling up and a house party setting the scene for a night of violence and surprising reveals, a bumbling deputy sheriff (David Arquette, Spree) works to put the puzzle pieces together while keeping ambitious news anchor Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective) from interfering with his investigation. 

Casting the film with recognizable stars was a smart move on the part of Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street) who experienced a justified career resurgence with the release of Scream.  Using proven talent took away the guessing game of how an actor would deliver on their performance and allowed Craven to focus less on developing the acting and more on constructing the mystery and suspense that make Scream such a rare breed of entertainment.  It’s why so many (SO many) movies tried to copy its success in the years to come, including its own subsequent sequels which became suspiciously less self-aware the more it touted how self-aware it was being.  Craven would at least get the chance to direct his pet project, 1999’s Music of the Heart in between directing Scream 2 and Scream 3.  Then came Cursed which is…a whole other 31 Days to Scare.

Mere months before a highly anticipated fifth sequel arrives (titled, simply, Scream) many fans will be revisiting the first four movies again and everyone has their favorite.  For a while, I leaned toward the second one as my go-to because of the sheer number of stars in it but you just can’t deny the maximum impact created by the original which has yet to be surpassed by anything that followed it.  The copycats were numerous, and it has been used as a comparison tool for hundreds more in the ensuing years.  That’s the sign of a film designated as a cultural touchstone for more than just a scary mask or pre-credit murder scene.  It’s a classic.

31 Days to Scare ~ Alien (1979)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After a space merchant vessel receives an unknown transmission as a distress call, one of the crew is attacked by a mysterious life form and they soon realize that its life cycle has merely begun.

Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Bolaji Badejo

Director: Ridley Scott

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  It’s Memorial Day weekend 1979 and you are an audience member in one of the 90 theaters showing a movie called Alien.  You’ve only seen the poster with the tagline, ‘In space, no one can hear you scream.’  Maybe you saw the teaser trailer (one of the all time best) in front of another movie earlier in the year or perhaps you’ve seen nothing of the film at all.  This is a time before the internet and the type of massive publicity surge studios use to show nearly everything but the closing credits before a movie opens.  No one else has told you what to expect, no dialogue later to become iconic has been quoted endlessly, there have been no copycats that tried to ride its genre coattails to similar success.  Everything about this is new to you.  I am so jealous of you!!

Seriously, think back to a time before you saw one of your favorite movies and then think about yourself now and how things changed after that experience.  You wish you could go back and relive that first thrill again.  While you can watch your go-to dozens of times over and only grow to love it more, nothing will beat that sweet first glimpse of greatness that made it so memorable in the first place.  Jaws, Jurassic Park, Moulin Rouge!, Grease 2 (yes, Grease 2), Rear Window, The Sound of Music, The Godfather – just a handful of titles that come to mind I’d love to go back and experience again like I’d never seen them before.  Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic Alien sits high on that list as well…and pretty high up.

A supreme genre hybrid and crown jewel in both science fiction and horror, Alien is the be-all, end-all of creature feature films set in the stars while also impressing as an incredibly scary haunted house flick with a few nods to the Westerns made famous in the ’50s.  Go into Alien without knowing what’s in store and you are sure to have shock after shock, finding a scream around every corner of the large commercial space vessel Nostromo which gets cleverly boarded by our titular character. 

The original idea of screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, both sci-fi fans with ties to the industry, the existence of the film can be tied back to the Star Wars craze.  Fans were clamoring for more space odysseys and with The Empire Strikes Back still in development/production and not due until 1980, 20th Century Fox took the first space script that came to them, then called Star Beast.  Renamed Alien, the studio hired relatively new director Scott (recently represented with The Last Duel) to lead the way of the modestly budgeted picture and Scott cast the film using the freedom the script gave him by making the characters unisex.  That means we could have gotten a male Ripley if Sigourney Weaver (Copycat) had decided to skip her audition that day.  While Weaver is just one of a fantastic ensemble of actors and would only later truly step into a spotlight leading role in 1986’s Aliens, almost from the start you can see the then 29 year-old actress taking control of the screen anytime she’s present. 

Weaver hangs to the side for much of the first hour of the film, as her crew answers a distress call on a small moon they were redirected to as they made their way home.  Landing on the barren terra, the three crew volunteers tasked with finding the source of the signal instead find what looks to be a spaceship in ruins and eventually encounter an…unpleasantness which leaves one crew member incapacitated.  Bringing him back on board to give him medical care, they restart the journey home as fast as possible but it’s already too late.  They’ve brought something on board that will emerge, grow, and kill them one by one until only one is left to face the towering creature head on.

Even watching the movie for as long as I have, I’ll never get over at how ahead of its time it was.  On so many levels.  First off, the presence of such a strong female character that winds up the lead is so rare in this genre and this certain type of take-charge female is particularly impressive.  Other films feature women that become strong or fall into a position of being forced to adapt or else, but Weaver plays Ripley as a woman that’s always been proving herself and this experience is not all that different.  She would return to the role again in three subsequent sequels and was Oscar-nominated for the next film but here is where it all began, and the groundwork is laid strong for what develops over the years. 

Another way the film seems ahead of its time is that it literally looks like it was made a decade or more in the future and then shipped back for the audience to view.  The special effects are outstanding and deservedly won an Oscar and the production design was also nominated and could have likely won as well because the magnitude of the sets is jaw-dropping.  Budgeted at 11 million dollars, the producers made their money go a long way and it shows in each blinking light on the control panels, grandeur of the planetary design, and scale of the ship’s shadowy corridors.  The alien itself is just a man (Bolaji Badejo) in a rubber suit but the costume is so detailed and the editing from Terry Rawlings and Peter Weatherley so skilled that you never notice the seams. 

Anyone with a pulse should feel it racing at some point during Alien.  Using not just the creature itself but light, practical design/effects, and our own imaginations to create scenarios in our head, Alien creates a high sense of dread that rarely lets the audience have time to catch their breath. The cast, the production, and Scott’s assured hand in direction combine to give what could have been a B-movie in the wrong hands a classy sheen that’s stood the test of time.  Even today it remains an extremely frightening film that works because of its simplicity in scaring us. Countless movies have tried without the same type of (or any) success in recreating what Alien brings forth…just stick with the biggest baddest mother of them all.

31 Days to Scare ~ Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young woman’s search for her biological family leads her to an Amish community that is hiding some very dark secrets.

Stars: Emily Bader, Roland Buck III, Dan Lippert, Henry Ayres-Brown, Tom Nowicki

Director: William Eubank

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Creatively, the Paranormal Activity franchise was at a dead end by the time the previous entry, The Ghost Dimension, was released all the way back in 2014.  With diminishing box office returns and scares that seemed standard, there was little the series hadn’t explored in its own mythology and audiences could almost set their watches by when things would finally start to get rolling.  The beauty of the first movie was the way it slowly reached its boiling point, leading to a finale that paid off.  However, after the same rug pull and trickery were repeated time and time again it wasn’t fulfilling anything but a 90-minute gap of your evening.

The series took a small step away from its origins in 2015 by releasing Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, taking the horror out of the suburbs and into the urban life of a Hispanic neighborhood but its cool reception brought producers quickly back to the familiar.  Now, they’ve gone even further by creating a standalone sequel, Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin and bypassing a theatrical release entirely, opting to send the screams to stream on Paramount+ in time for Halloween.  (Naturally, it was intended for the big screen but, y’know, COVID.)  The result is still a timewaster but a re-energized one that feels like a move in a good direction if this is the way the franchise wants to frighten us going forward.

Left at the doors of a hospital by her mother when she was just a baby, Margot (Emily Bader) has grown up longing to know her birth parents and find out why she was abandoned but has hit nothing but dead ends.  Now working as a documentary filmmaker with her boyfriend Chris (Roland Buck III) she’s met Samuel (Henry Ayres-Brown, Monsterland) after matching with him on 23 and Me.  A member of a small Amish community in upstate New York on his Rumspringa year, Samuel offers to take Margot, Chris, and local sound designer Dale (Dan Lippert) back home when he returns.  Knowing this is her opportunity to learn more about her roots and an opportunity to get footage for a potential documentary, they arrive in the dead of night to a snowy farm that practically screams “Welcome Death!”.

Over the next several days, Margot and her friends will experience the traditions of the community and eventually see some things they weren’t meant to.  Doors with huge locks on them will suddenly be opened and what’s behind them will be explored, hidden rooms will be entered and their contents become clues for Margot to the identity of her mother, suggesting that perhaps she might still be somewhere among the people gathered…or elsewhere on the grounds.  The creepy commune has practices that may remind audiences of Midsommar or other folk horror flicks that thrive under their isolated setting and the claustrophobia of both the insular location and found footage setting helps the film to keep the tension high even if the story feels a bit predictable.

The last film director William Eubank was responsible for was 2020’s Underwater, a highly underrated creature feature starring Kristen Stewart that I’m convinced will someday get the recognition it’s due.  On that film, Eubank showed attention to the small details in character traits which gives us more of a read on who those people were in a short amount of time.  The script from Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day) doesn’t flesh these Next of Kin folk out too much so Eubank has his work cut out for him but he’s cast the movie well with fresh faces and respectable stable of character actors playing elders in the group.  Journeyman actor Tom Nowicki (The Dark and the Wicked) is an especially good get as the leader of the society.

Coming it at a rather long 98 minutes, Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin follows tradition by lighting a flame early on with scare licks here and there and gradually increasing the frequency until boiling over for a prolonged finale that is a bit too chaotic.  It doesn’t skimp on the jerky camera movements (note: it’s not all found footage, some of it is filmed like an actual movie) or a nice dose of mayhem but there is such a thing as too much of a scary thing. Reaching a level that gets disorienting, I realized what a far cry it was from a rather humble beginning…and not just of this movie but of the first one that came out 2007. We’ve left that California thread behind (hopefully) and who knows what will be next, but there’s effort being made to resuscitate it by a team that obviously cares.

31 Days to Scare ~ Antlers

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In an isolated Oregon town, a high school teacher and her police officer brother become convinced one of her students is harboring a deadly supernatural secret.

Stars: Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons, Jeremy Thomas, Graham Greene, Scott Haze, Rory Cochrane, Amy Madigan, Cody Davis

Director: Scott Cooper

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I have to admit that I’m still a little anxious when I get ready to head into a movie theater.  I’m all vaxxed up, masked, and ready for the theatrical experience but my heart beats a little faster when it’s time to venture in.  And I know what it’s like for others too who go through the same range of emotions after being used to watching their movies in the comfort of their own home for so long.  There’s a period of adjustment that’s needed before we can all feel like its natural to just head to the movies at the drop of a hat (or a mask, maybe).  The first few times I was back in the theater, I found it hard to relax and be comfortable but I’m getting there.

Understanding that is helpful at the start of my review for Antlers, especially when it comes right before I tell you that seeing this one in the theaters is well worth it.  I’d been looking forward to this Guillermo del Toro-produced horror film for nearly two years by the time I finally saw it and I’m so glad that Searchlight Pictures held it back from a streaming release until now.  That way, audiences can truly focus on the ambiance and environment created by director Scott Cooper and his crew, bringing viewers into an isolated community where a ancient legend lives and grows hungrier.

It probably helped that it was a dark and stormy afternoon that I saw the film because most of the movie takes place in a wet and rainy small town in Oregon which has suffered due to a local mining company closing and the opioid epidemic running rampant within the Northwestern communities.  As the film opens, Lucas Weaver (Jeremy Thomas) is waiting for his dad Frank (Scott Haze, Venom) and a buddy to finish clearing out their makeshift meth lab set-up in an old mineshaft.  The dark and dank locale is perfect for hiding their illegal operation and turns out, for an unseen creature to stalk them in the film’s first nerve jangling sequence of suspense.

Several weeks later, Lucas is in school but looks worse for wear but isn’t all that different from a number of the vacant eyed children that Julie Meadows (Keri Russell, Austenland) teaches.  A former townie that left because of deep-rooted family trouble, she’s living in her childhood home with a police officer brother (Jesse Plemons, Game Night) and a lot of bad memories she’d just as soon forget.  In line at the store, she glances at bottles of alcohol long enough for us to understand loud and clear that screenwriters C. Henry Chaisson and Nic Antosca (who wrote the original short story) want us to be sure to note that Julie has struggled with unhealthy coping mechanisms.  Back at school, recognizing signs of abuse in the boy’s drawings and behavior, Lucas catches Julie’s eye and makes the boy her mission in rescuing him from what she thinks is mistreatment. She’ll learn it is far more dangerous. Not before a whole bunch of people die, though.

I wouldn’t dream of spoiling how the second act of Antlers develops, only to say that even if it does dip slightly into some overtly conventional territory, it never sways from being completely entertaining.  Cooper (Out of the Furnace) excels at this type of small-town filmmaking and while the cast is made up of movie stars, they all seem to fit this Oregon lifestyle in unassuming ways.  While Russell and Plemons might not be the first choice to play siblings, they work well with one another and thank heavens there are no fussy romantic entanglements for either to get involved with that would slow things down.  Thomas is the star of the show, and the rest of the cast seems to understand that, allowing themselves to blend more into the background while he impresses front and center.  It’s a bear of a role to ask a child to play but, as we’ll come to see in several movies yet to release in 2021, the kids are coming to take over Hollywood.

It’s not easy to be consistent with a mood for any length of time, especially in horror films, but there’s this sense of dread that hangs over Antlers from the start that never lets up.  Beginning with the opening lines taken from the words of an indigenous First Nations myth to the tingly epilogue, Cooper might not wrangle every idea introduced down to be completely explained by the finale, but he at least makes the film interesting throughout.  You want a return on your investment of time and travel for going to the movies and you don’t always get it…Antlers sends you home fully vested.

31 Days to Scare ~ Last Night in Soho

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An aspiring fashion designer is mysteriously able to enter the 1960s where she encounters a dazzling wannabe singer. But the glamour is not all it appears to be and the dreams of the past start to crack and splinter into something darker.

Stars: Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith, Terence Stamp, Diana Rigg, Synnøve Karlsen, Rita Tushingham

Director: Edgar Wright

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Time flies when you’re coming out of lockdown.  It seems like only yesterday I saw the first trailer for this mystery within a horror film directed by Edgar Wright (The World’s End) and couldn’t wait for its release date to arrive and now it’s finally here.  OK, so it was only May but that was five months ago, and a lot has happened since then.  It’s a rare pleasure when a movie is as good as it is advertised to be and it’s a true unicorn when the resulting film is just a tad bit better, and I think Last Night in Soho may inch out it’s well edited preview by a few blonde hairs.  While it’s going to divide a great number of people that want the third act to be as elusive as the first two, this is a movie that ultimately has the general consumer at heart rather than the niche crowd…and what’s wrong with that?

I tend to get a kick out of people that wish they lived in another decade.  Really?  As a (insert anything other than straight while male) you wanted to live in a different time when you had even less rights and freedom to be who you were?  Well sure, the clothes may have been wilder, and the music was better but still…you might be sacrificing liberation for the overall visualization of the time and that wouldn’t be the best.  Yet I must admit the opening of Last Night in Soho, featuring Thomasin McKenzie’s ‘60s obsessed Eloise flouncing around her time capsule-like bedroom in a dress of her own creation is a bouncy way to start what ends on a much different note.  Living with her gran (Rita Tushingham) after mum passed away, Eloise has a passion for fashion and just wants to study at a top London fashion school. 

Receiving her acceptance letter at the top of the film, this country mouse heads to the big city with many of the same dreams her mother had and, as we can tell, suppressing similar mental health issues that caused her to return home without achieving them. Eloise will be different though, and when her original living situation with an impossible roommate Jacosta (Synnøve Karlsen) doesn’t work out, she seeks out a bedsit on the third floor of an assuming row house owned by Mrs. Collins (the late, great Dame Diana Rigg, Breathe).

She’s barely settled and sleeping on her first night that something odd happens.  Always a bit of a dreamer, Elosie has a whooper.  She fantasizes she’s a new girl in town, Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy, Radioactive), during the swinging ‘60s who wants to make it as a singer and hopes she can do it on talent alone.  Meeting the enigmatic Jack (Matt Smith, Terminator Genisys) at a luxe club who thinks she’s the tops, he sweeps her off her feet and the world is hers for the taking.  It’s a beautiful dream world Eloise has created…so how did the “love bite” Jack gave Sandie wind up on her neck the next morning?  As the lines between the reality of Eloise and the fantasy of Sandie start to blur, the dreams of the night seep into her day. Night after night, Eloise appears to travel back in time and doesn’t exactly live as Sandie but peers over her shoulder into her world…a world that first turns dark, then violent, then deadly. 

Written by Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917), the film is a filled with twists and turns, not to mention some brilliant camera work and effects that have McKenzie and Taylor-Joy switching places multiple times during scenes.  One moment it’s Eloise dancing with Jack, the next it’s Sandie.  It’s disorienting and very much meant to be – yet it’s always easy to track what direction the movie is heading, just thankfully not where it will end up.  After seeing the film I’ve read the finale hasn’t sat well with people and I suppose I can see why. It’s far more in line with traditional suspense tropes and less of the dreamy quality employed so well in the first 90 minutes, but I wasn’t complaining at all.  It’s still vehemently performed by the cast – that’s undeniable.

Playing like Wright had an Argento filter on his camera, the production design is awash with Argento’s favorite bold color palettes and the Italian’s maestro’s penchant for gore that comes out of nowhere.  The film is restrained up unto a point but eventually let’s its bloody banner wave, but it has purpose.  Smith and Taylor-Joy both look like they stepped out of a time machine for their roles, even if Taylor-Joy is getting dramatically overrated (please witness her 5-minute-long YouTube version of Petula Clark’s Downtown…or maybe you shouldn’t, she sings it in the movie and takes half that amount of time).  McKenzie (True History of the Kelly Gang) has the heavy lifting to do, and she has muscles of steel by the end. It’s a nervy performance that works well in harmony with the other performers that are so still and solid.  Acting stalwarts Terence Stamp (Big Eyes) and Tushingham (The Owners) are divine in their limited screen time and what a wonderful showcase for Rigg in her final screen appearance, looking radiant. 

An ambitiously rich production that boasts eye-popping visuals and an array of period music to create a dazzling soundtrack, Last Night in Soho gooses the audience with increasing energy as it goes along. The scares are nicely timed and lingering, benefitting from delivery that has polish and an awareness of what type of movie everyone set out to make.  Arriving in time for Halloween, it’s a top-notch selection for those looking for creativity and art that jumps out at them, along with an imaginative story that dips and swerves to keep you guessing.

31 Days to Scare ~ Hypnotic (2021)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young woman seeking self-improvement enlists the help of a renowned hypnotist but, after a handful of intense sessions, discovers unexpected and deadly consequences.

Stars: Kate Siegel, Jason O’Mara, Dulé Hill, Lucie Guest, Jaime M. Callica, Darien Martin, Luc Roderique

Director: Suzanne Coote and Matt Angel

Rated: NR

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: I spent way too much time during the new Netflix thriller Hypnotic wondering if leading actress Kate Siegel (The Haunting of Bly Manor) was wearing a wig.  Time I should have been spending focused on the story and characters, but the film tends to skimp in those areas to such a degree that I kept coming back to that darn wig. 

We’re supposed to understand at the beginning of the film that Siegel’s character Jenn is feeling lost in life, having suffered a miscarriage, separating from her fiancé (Jaime M. Callica), and just generally not knowing what direction her life isgoing in.  This manifests itself in her hair outwardly displaying the inner turmoil she’s experiencing.  After being introduced to handsome Dr. Collin Meade (Jason O’Mara, One for the Money) at a housewarming party and agreeing to a hypnotherapy session with him, Jenn starts to pull herself together.  After three months, her hair game is TRESemmé chic and she’s even warming to the idea of patching things up with her former flame. Then her phone rings and she wakes up hours later to…a bad situation.

Hair seems to be an important topic of Hypnotic…and not just in this review.  Another patient of the mysterious Dr. Meade has an issue with hair, and we’ll come to learn that three of Meade’s previous patients bear a striking resemblance to his late wife…and all have died under mysterious circumstances.  Guess who they all look like as well?  As Jenn’s close circle of support begins to dwindle under suspicious circumstances, she looks deeper into her hypnotist’s past and uncovers a danger she has little control over.  Enlisting the help of an already case-curious detective (Dulé Hill), Jenn will need to figure out the end game before the doctor can get close enough to exert his power.

It’s always a bit discouraging to see actors you like (Siegel has been so consistent in every project) struggle with substandard material and Hypnotic is very middle of the road stuff.  It’s well made and far above average in the casting department, but the whole thing has the whiff of a project everyone made just to keep the lights on at their home.  No one seems that invested in the outcome and that lack of true conviction winds up showing up across the board. 

Perhaps it’s because the script from Richard D’Ovidio is a little thin and a lot silly, putting the onus on the actors to fill in too many gaps in the narrative with some overly earnest theatrics that put them at risk for straying into overacting.  Or maybe directors Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote just never get the tone quite correct.  There are admittedly a few nice scenes, and one truly unsettling reveal of a hiding place but add it all up and it’s only halfway there.

I won’t use the power of suggestion to nudge you either way toward Hypnotic or not, but if the actors appeal to you and a B+ production of a C+ script sounds like your cup of tea for the evening then by all means, have at it.  Be warned though, you may find yourself getting sleepy…very sleepy.

31 Days to Scare ~ Titane (2021)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Titane: A metal highly resistant to heat and corrosion, with high tensile strength alloys.

Stars: Vincent Lindon, Agathe Rousselle, Garance Marillier, Laïs Salameh, Mara Cissé, Marin Judas, Diong-Kéba Tacu

Director: Julia Ducournau

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Often you’ll hear that a movie isn’t for the faint of heart.  Eventually you see it and wonder what the fuss is all about.  Then along comes a movie like Julia Ducournau’s Titane and proves the phrase entirely true.  I felt like I needed to write my review of Titane as quickly as possible after I finished it because I wasn’t sure how long I could let the film stew at the front of my brain – it’s that much of an intense experience.  Don’t equate ‘intense’ with ‘unwatchable’, ‘bad, or ‘irredeemable’ though, because those negative terms also get tossed around with films that carry advance word at how rough they are with the audience.  You’re going to want to look away multiple times during Titane’s run time, especially in its blistering first forty-five minutes, but stick around and a rather beautiful film emerges as your reward.

I had to think a bit on how to lay out this review without giving away too much of what is going on in Ducournau’s film because even as a site that refrains from major spoilers, certain elements of the basic plot can spoil some of what Titane develops into.  So I’ve decided to stick with the first part and most advertised section of the movie and then let you discover what happens after that – it’s how I came to it and in general the less you know about this one, the better.  As both the writer and director, Ducournau (Raw) has a clear vision of where Titane begins and how it has to bend to get to a new and different shape by the time it finishes…and the best part about that is there’s hardly any foreshadowing to the viewer of what’s about to happen.

A car accident as a child gave Alexia a metal plate in her head, leaving a formidable scar that she displays proudly as an adult by wearing her hair up and fastened by a handy knitting needle which she also keeps for self-protection.  Turns out she actually needs it too, while working in an industrial warehouse as a dancer with a specialty for cars.  Transforming from a rather ordinary plain Jane to a vixen in high heels, fishnets, and a gold lame bikini, Alexia’s performance doesn’t just provide pleasure for the garrulous group of onlookers that gawk and ask for her autograph after. iI appears that she also has an intimate connection to the vehicles she uses as more than props.  And when I say intimate, I mean…intimate. 

Fans of David Cronenberg’s 1996 film Crash, an NC-17 rated film concerning people who are turned on by car accidents that I find totally repulsive, might be interested to see how Ducournau takes Titane one step further…much to our wide-eyed surprise.  I’ll say no more about this piece of Ducournau’s overall puzzle now because it factors in later during spoiler territory, but she takes it all the way before easing off the gas.  When she’s not getting friendly with cars, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle, in a performance for the ages that’s on par with Isabelle Adjani’s in Possession) is also using her knitting needle in a variety of different ways…on a number of different people.  This is a troubled woman injured at a young age that likely never got the help she needed and a number of lives are paying for it now.  Violence and self-harm reach its peak in a stomach churning sequence of events, giving way to the film’s second act that doesn’t feel like a change of pace as much as it feels like a change of attitude. 

You’ll have to trust me when I say that the final hour of Titane is where the good stuff lives.  Ducournau uses the first part of her film to see how far she can push the limits and, once satisfied, uses that last hour to reveal a more vulnerable and humane depiction of grief and connection.  I would never have guessed Titane was headed where it eventually leads us but I was quite satisfied (and very exhausted from the tension) when it was complete.  I find that the older I get the less comfortable I am with body horror; that is, watching horrible things happen over time to a person’s body, and Titane seemed to know this was my button to smash and smash hard.  Strong stomachs and nerves of steel to the front of the line.

Winner of the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival (=Best of the Best), Ducournau became only the second female to win the award (it’s given to the director) and that’s a laudable feat.  It’s a justified win in my book because the clarity in which the film delivers strong messages about acceptance and family is timely, not to mention the balance of extreme violence and unexpected tenderness is striking.  This is a horror film at its core but layered with so much more that gives it purpose that nears perfection at points.  Don’t be scared away too easily.

31 Days to Scare ~ Mute Witness (1995)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A mute makeup artist working on a slasher film in Moscow is locked in the studio after hours. Witnessing a brutal murder, she must escape capture before convincing authorities of what she’s seen.

Stars: Marina Zudina, Fay Ripley, Evan Richards, Igor Volkov, Sergei Karlenkov, Alec Guinness, Aleksandr Pyatkov

Director: Anthony Waller

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Hanging out at the local Mr. Movies as much as I did during my teen years, before I started working there the manager took pity on me and let me browse through his catalog of films all franchise owners were sent.  This is what studios would use to advertise their films in the pre-internet days when some of the more indie titles would need that extra push to get smaller hubs to order a copy or two of their film.  That’s how I first saw the arresting VHS box art for Mute Witness, which differs greatly from the movie poster featured above.  I’ll include it below, but you can see why it was an eye-catcher and how it practically marketed itself without needing to explain much of the plot.  People would rent the movie based on the visual alone, and I know this to be true because our store ordered one copy (I’d like to think my persistence had something to do with it) that was frequently checked out.

I saw this British funded thriller made in Moscow when it was first released and didn’t remember much about it and when I found a random DVD copy recently, I took it as a sign that Mute Witness came back into my life during October for a reason.  Firing it up again didn’t jog any old memories from the VHS era but the rewatch did create some positive new ones. While writer/director Anthony Waller’s suspenseful potboiler doesn’t set out to reinvent the often-utilized genre trope of a central character that saw something they shouldn’t having to evade grievous bodily harm, it does deliver genuine thrills with over-the-top gusto.

American movie director Andy (Evan Richards, Society) has come to Moscow to film a low budget slasher film, bringing along his girlfriend Karen (Fay Ripley) and her mute sister Billy (Marina Zudina) to work on the crew. Communications are already strained between the Russian-speaking cast and their English-speaking director and the working conditions in the rundown studio in an isolated part of town aren’t that much better.  On this day, an actress is performing a death scene, one she turns into a curtain yanking, desk flipping, dish breaking, three act-play.  Make-up artist Billy barely has time to whip up another batch of fake blood before it’s time to call it a day.  Realizing she forgot something as she’s leaving, Billy returns to the studio alone and winds up locked in by a hard of hearing night watchman.

Up until this point, Waller has presented Mute Witness with some stylistic flourishes and allowed it to rumble slowly to life. The movie within a movie beginning is cheeky fun and while the language barrier is used for laughter at first, it will soon become a hinderance for our unlucky title character.  While trying to find a way out, Billy gets back to the soundstage and sees a horrifically brutal murder…or does she?  At first, we believe she does and the way she gets chased around the abandoned building by two men you certainly don’t think they’re looking for her opinion on their lighting of the scene.  For a time, there’s a big question mark Waller attempts to place over the event, leading the film down the wrong fork in the road that only unnecessarily pads the running time. 

It becomes a long night not just for Billy but for Karen and Andy too as they get involved with the crime and a growing band of criminals and authorities that have a stake in either getting Billy to talk or silencing her for good.  Waller has obviously seen a good deal of Alfred Hitchcock and even more Dario Argento and Brian De Palma films because there are references to all of the above throughout the film. Mute Witness almost plays like a souped-up attempt to recreate De Palma’s feverish filmmaking with Argento’s grand orchestration for scenic composition.  The most effective scenes are the ones that are the most compact, giving the players little room to move around and forcing them to get resourceful in finding their way out of danger.  Elevator shafts, bathrooms, exposed hallways…all are free for Waller to place a person in peril.

The often unevenness in tone spills over into performance.  As Billy, Zudina carries the movie easily, even when she’s going far bigger than she needs to. A trained theater actress, Zudina often plays to the back row of the theater in her reactions and with Waller’s tendency to slow things down it can come across a bit comical instead of terror-filled.  Also, you have to give her credit for making it through one scene where she gets a little too creative with trying to get a person’s attention in an apartment across the street.  All of the Russians feel like they were dubbed later on (maybe by the same person) so there’s a one-note to most of them.  Then there’s Sir Alec Guinness (yes, THAT Sir Alec Guinness from Star Wars and Murder by Death) appearing in a cameo that he filmed TEN YEARS before the movie was made.  You can go here and read all about it but it’s truly a…unique story.

I do think Mute Witness is worth your time if you can find a copy.  Largely unavailable on streaming and rarely (if ever) shown on TV, your best bet might be to suck it up and buy a copy on eBay or see if your local library has it.  It’s a showy bit of horror that knows exactly what buttons to push and keeps jabbing at them right up until the end, not willing to let the audience rest a single moment until the credits roll.  Greedy on the part of the filmmakers?  Maybe.  That’s way better than not giving you anything to scream about, though!

Here’s that VHS Cover, as promised!

31 Days to Scare ~ The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A newly engaged couple have a breakdown in an isolated area and must seek shelter at the bizarre residence of Dr. Frank-n-Furter.

Stars: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, Nell Campbell, Jonathan Adams, Peter Hinwood, Meat Loaf, Charles Gray

Director: Jim Sharman

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: To truly appreciate a show like Richard O’ Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show, you have to see it live on stage.  That’s really the only way you can get the full-on experience of how O’Brien originally conceived it and see it for its clever ode to the schlock cinema from the ‘50s and ‘60s.  Set to O’Brien’s undeniably catchy tunes and lyrics that range from the divine “Dana Andrews said prunes gave him the runes” to the make-it-work “Planet, schmanet, Janet!”, the stage version premiered in 1973 in a small UK venue and gradually moved up through larger houses as word-of-mouth buzzed through town.  American producer Lou Adler caught the show one night, saw $$$ after the recent success of Jesus Christ Superstar on stage and screen, and began the musical’s journey to cinemas at the same time it was crossing the pond to take on the U.S.

By the time The Rocky Horror Picture Show opened in 1975, the stage show had played a successful run of nine months in L.A. (with original London star Tim Curry and future movie cast member Meatloaf), transferred to Broadway with the same players, and closed after an infamously short run after a disastrous NYC reception.  In between the two bi-coastal runs Curry and Meatloaf flew to London to make the movie which was planned to be released while the Broadway run was enjoying a warm reception and oodles of awards.  Sadly, only the mononymous Chipmonck was recognized with a Tony nomination for his lighting design of the 4 previews and 45 performances at the Belasco theater in March and April of 1975.

That was the stage show and the movie is a different beast all together, one that found a its own kind of status over time.  At first, though, it looked like the hope for Rocky Horror finding longevity was slim.  Opening in August 1975, director Jim Sharman’s film version is bound to be a strange experience for anyone coming in cold to the show.  The title has such a history attached to it, with the legendary tales of midnight screenings and groupies that dress up like the characters and act out scenes in front of the screen while audience members talk back to the actors in the film.  Toast is thrown, as are rolls of toilet paper, rice, cards (for sorrow), cards (for pain), and make sure you have a newspaper with you because someone will absolutely be squirting water during a rainstorm scene early on in the film.  This all happens if you attend one of those packed screenings that still exist, but not as frequently as they had in the past.

I’ve seen the show multiple times in a movie theater and onstage but rarely at home with just myself and the television and watching it with my partner for his first time it was odd to have it so…quiet.  Where were the people yelling back at Brad (A**hole!) and Janet (S*ut!)?  Why was I the only one standing up doing the Time Warp?  It did give me a chance to appreciate how nicely made most of the movie is, with several sequences edited with such immense precision it give me goosebumps (take a look at how sharp the opening to “Touch-a-Touch-a-Touch-a-Touch Me” is timed).  True, the storyline is still a bit flouncy and drifts away every so often only to have O’Brien reel it in as we round the corner to the finish line, but it’s immense fun for the most part. 

The chief reason why the movie worked then and continues to work now can be summed up in two words. Tim. Curry. All the recent hoopla about Ben Platt recreating his Broadway role in the film version of Dear Evan Hansen for no real reason should use a performer like Tim Curry (Clue) as an example of why sometimes it is the best choice after all to have the OG star in the film.  20th Century Fox pushed to have Barry Bostwick (Tales of Halloween) and Ride the Eagle’s Susan Sarandon (having an absolute ball here) cast in the roles of the virginal couple that get lost in the rain and find themselves mixed up with Curry’s party of weirdos but it would have been a death sentence for the film if Curry hadn’t been brought along from the stage show.  No one has ever come close to beating him in the role and it’s so important that a performance of this magnitude has been preserved like this forever.  Same goes for O’Brien, Nell Campbell, Jonathan Adams, and Patricia Quinn (The Lords of Salem), all original stage stars appearing in the movie with only Adams not playing the same role he did onstage.  Quinn, in particular is impossible to not watch every moment she’s onscreen…like a demented Bernadette Peters she’s always up to something.

It’s easy to throw around the term “cult” and randomly apply it as the status of a movie, but few truly earn it.  The Rocky Horror Picture show is more than worthy of being bestowed that honor and while it went up in smoke during it’s early run in theaters, I think it wound up doing just fine over the last 46 years.  The last count was that it has made over 170 million dollars in box office returns – not bad for a movie that cost 1.4 million originally.  If you can’t make it to the theater to see it live, give this one a try at home.  A bonus: you likely have the most important props (toast, newspaper, toilet paper) close at hand!

31 Days to Scare ~ Frankenstein (1931)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Dr. Frankenstein dares to tamper with life and death by creating a human monster out of lifeless body parts.

Stars: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Boris Karloff, Edward Van Sloan, Frederick Kerr, Dwight Frye, Lionel Belmore

Director: James Whale

Rated: Passed

Running Length: 70 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Until recently, I’d never seen director James Whale’s landmark 1931 version of Frankenstein before, but I felt like I had.  That’s because there are so many iconic images, scenes, and vocals from it existing in popular culture that, like the creature at the center cobbled together from multiple bodies, one could easily have assembled it in their mind.  There’s obviously nothing like sitting down and actually watching the 70-minute film from beginning to end and the viewer is reminded again why some movies are classics and stand the test of time while others fade from memory before you’ve even made it home from the theater.  This is not one that’s easily forgotten.

After the unexpected success of Dracula in 1931, Universal Studios fast tracked their plans to create a host of horror films that could be made for relatively little money but would turn a nice profit for the studio.  The next film in this mix was Frankenstein and though originally intended to star Bela Lugosi as the Monster, the star of Dracula left after being unhappy with the way the role was coming together.  Looking back, it was fortunate that Lugosi could remain ever associated with the vampire Count he made iconic, making way for Boris Karloff to put his stamp on the Monster creation of Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein. 

While the movie is ostensibly based on the book by Mary Shelley that was published in 1818, it’s by way of an adaptation of a 1927 play that was itself adapted from the novel.  Like a game of telephone, Shelley’s story lost some of its intensity in the transition of mediums, but the outline is generally the same.  Scientist Frankenstein (Victor in the book, Henry in the movie) is obsessed with creating life out of dead matter and will resort to unorthodox methods to test his experiments.  Assembling a body out of the parts of cadavers, he brings the Creature (dubbed the Monster in the movie) to life but becomes repulsed by what he has created and abandons his work for his waiting fiancée, Elizabeth.  When the Monster breaks loose and starts to wreak havoc on the nearby village, Frankenstein has to confront his creation and put an end to the horror.

It’s hard not to watch Frankenstein and stop yourself from being a little awed at both the enormity of the impact the film has had while at the same time recognizing how scuttle bones the picture is at times.  Backdrops that ripple to indicate it’s not a cloudy sky but a painted curtain, concrete walls that bounce, some hasty editing to cover for special effects that weren’t quite perfected.  Yet for all those rinky-dink callouts, oh my goodness is this film gorgeous when it comes to costume design and some of the sets that were constructed.  Frankenstein’s lab and lair are incredible sights to behold, and the windmill finale is as impressive a set piece now as I’m sure it was then. 

At the beginning of the film, one of the actors comes out and makes a grand announcement to the audience that the movie we are about to see is shocking and this is our final warning to leave if we didn’t think we could take it.  It’s a nice touch to set the mood and I’m sure must have gotten some audience members hearts racing.  Of course, we look at a low impact (in terms of horror) film such as Frankenstein now and wonder how it could have ever been considered ‘scary’ but then again, consider that much of the talk then was based on word of mouth so many people were going to this after someone told them about it.  The hype built up in their heads was likely looming large and this pre-show announcement would only boost that hope for thrill even more. 

Performance-wise, the film tends toward the typical broad-ness of the era with everyone affecting that same stage-y presentational way of delivering their dialogue but it’s really all about Karloff as the Monster. While Karloff also memorably played The Mummy the next year in 1932, he would always be associated with Frankenstein and for good reason.  There’s an emotional core to this creature and Karloff discovers it early on.  The Frankenstein character has gone on to be portrayed as a mouth-breathing dunderhead at times but not the way Karloff has played it. This is a confused living being trying to adjust to his surroundings that didn’t ask for the situation he’s in but being forced to conform.  It’s no wonder we often sympathize with the Monster more than any of the other characters.

Followed by six sequels that started with Bride of Frankenstein in 1935 (no, I haven’t seen that either…yikes!) and ending with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948 (yes, I’ve seen that and it’s grand!), Karloff would return for two as the Monster and one as Dr. Frankenstein!  The character of the Monster would go on to be a popular figure in many horror related features through the years, it certainly helped Universal continue to churn out their initial batch of now-legendary monster movies.  Attempts at remakes that are closer to Shelley’s original novel have been made over the years, but the image of this 1931 Frankenstein sets a high bar for any subsequent production.  That’s saying something about the longevity of this picture.  It’s (still) alive, indeed.