2019 – Best of the Best, Worst of the Worst, Grand Totals

Hello!

It’s the 31st of December and I’m furiously typing away to put together my end of the year list.  Forget about me making a Best of the Decade list — I’d be working on it for weeks.  Instead, take a read at the movies that have sparked joy in me over the past twelve months and which have made my eyes glow red with anger. 

This year I made a promise to myself to review every new movie I had the good fortune to screen/see in theaters and I’m pleased to see that I kept that promise throughout.  It required more of my time and involved prioritizing some work but I feel the end result was worth it.  I hope to continue that as we approach the NINTH year of The MN Movie Man.  What a wild ride.

Although I’m slightly aghast at the amount of movies I saw this year (look below, I’m a bit horrified to reveal the number here), I’ve learned a lot by seeking out films that are off the beaten path and not just sticking to the mainstream releases.  Critics nowadays seem to be only bringing attention to movies that are easily accessible but I think we should all be working harder to push ourselves into highlighting and championing the smaller films that are being pushed out of theaters by an endless array of blockbusters (which I also quite like, by the way).  If you’re a critic and reading this — I challenge you to review on your blog/channel/page at least one movie a month that didn’t get a mainstream release.  It was a huge creative step forward for me this year — try it for yourself!

As always, I’ve appreciated your feedback, your patronage, and your general presence in my blog. Even if you read this everyday but have never commented or made contact I can still tell you’ve been here and that means a lot.  

If you haven’t already, make sure to follow this blog, follow me on Twitter (@joemnmovieman), follow me on Instagram, and like my Facebook page so you can help me continue spreading the news about The MN Movie Man.

Best Wishes to you and yours for a most Happy New Year!

~Joe (The MN Movie Man)

5. Us – It was just two years ago that Jordan Peele’s feature directorial debut Get Out landed on top of my Best of 2017 list. Fears of a sophomore slump were put to rest with the arrival of Us, a more straight-forward horror film from Peele that frightened me something good. There’s less of the social commentary that was present in Get Out but Us does have some interesting things to say if you read between the bloody lines. This was one of the few movies I saw twice in theaters and both times it was highly effective, thanks in no small part to Lupita Nyong’o’s incredible lead performance. Back in March I felt like Nyong’o could be an Oscar contender and hopefully in a few weeks it will happen – she’s part of an excellent cast telling Peele’s twisted tale. So good.

4. Apollo 11 – After the languid First Man in 2018, I thought I had had my fill of space movies for a bit and certainly didn’t think there was there anything more to learn about the Apollo missions that hadn’t already been covered. Then Apollo 11 snuck into theaters and sent me out of orbit with praise. A staggering documentary that features an astonishing amount of never before seen footage remastered so that it looked like it was filmed yesterday, watching this brought out the happy tears in me. Gorgeous to look at and filled with edge-of-your-seat moments, it’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.

3. The Farewell – The good buzz on The Farewell followed it into theaters after it debuted to strong acclaim in Sundance. From director Lulu Wang and based on her real life family, it’s a sweet but not saccharine look at a different culture and the way they choose to deal with death. I appreciated there were so many opportunities for viewers like myself to learn more about Chinese customs in addition to watching a beautifully touching story unfold. Known for her more comedic work, Awkwafina logged an impressive dramatic debut but the movie belongs to luminous Shuzhen Zhao as the grandmother kept in the dark by her family about her recent diagnosis of a terminal disease. You’ll cry, but not for the reasons you’d expect.

2. 1917 – Among the many successes that 1917 can claim is keeping my attention during what is traditionally a rough genre for me. Diverting from your standard war film tropes, writer/director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) and his co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns side-step the landmines of recreating a well-known incident from the first World War and opt to go with something more personal. Shot to look like the entire two hour movie was filmed in one take, aside from its stunning achievement in cinematography it has two appealing stars and a moving story to tell. I was fully engaged from frame one until the last credit onscreen and once this opens wide in January 2020 I think audiences will feel the same way.

1. A Hidden Life – I’ve spent the last two months since I saw A Hidden Life thinking about it almost daily and while I knew it would be in my top five of the year, it’s ability to stay so emotionally fresh with me kept pushing it higher up in the ranks. I honestly could have flipped a coin between this and 1917 but in the end writer/director Terrence Malick’s magnificent film was the only choice for me. Though it has disappointingly been given a paltry release, I’ve been urging everyone to get to the theater and see this pronto because it has some truly majestic moments that deserve to be viewed on the big screen. Malick’s film centers around a Austrian conscientious objector during WWII and the devastating effect it has not just on him but his family struggling to keep going in his absence. It’s a somber film but filled with some of the best views I saw all year and two quietly powerful lead performances that hold it all together. It will still have an impact on the small screen but if you have any chance to see A Hidden Life at your local moviehouse…do it. It’s my favorite film of the year.

Honorable Mentions: Parasite (2019), Ad Astra, Avengers: Endgame, Bombshell, Crawl, Doctor Sleep, Knives Out, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Premature, Queen & Slim, Ready or Not, The Irishman, Saint Frances, The Kid Who Would Be King, The Mustang

5. Dumbo (2019) – Even though Disney will wind up the year the most profitable studio thanks to their owning most of the big franchise pictures that made billions, they can’t escape that they released some stinkers in 2019 as well. You’ll notice their live-action remake of Aladdin is down in Dis(Honorable) mentions and while a live-action The Lion King didn’t totally sully the memory of the animated original it didn’t make the kind of money it was predicted to. I actually enjoyed the new Lady & The Tramp on Disney+ but Tim Burton’s update of Dumbo was a real mess. Adding new characters, taking what was a simple story, and drowning it in excess, it was an eye-sore and it made my butt-sore. They say an elephant never forgets but they’d definitely make an effort after watching this three-ring disaster.

4. Serenity (2019) – One of the first movies I saw in theaters last January was the much-delayed Serenity. Boasting a bevy of A-list Oscar favorites, this mystery wanted to be steamy and twisty but would up being a laughably bad attempt at meta-filmmaking that was sunk quickly after opening. Relying on one totally crazy twist that isn’t hard to spot, actually, viewers didn’t watch the movie as much as they sort of just bore witness to it all falling apart in front of them. I like almost everyone in this and would never turn my nose up at a modern day noir, but the route Serenity travels on is too far-fetched. Jump ship on this one fast.

3. Her Smell – Numerous critics I respect have Her Smell on their Best of the Year list and would probably be wide-eyed to see it as my #3 worst of the year but this experience in agony was too much to handle. Star Elisabeth Moss earned praise for diving head-first into the role of a self-destructive singer whose years of hard living alienate her from everyone she loves but it comes off like Moss was just riffing in rehearsal and it was caught on camera. The move alienates you almost from the start and spends it’s first hour following Moss as her character embarks on a repulsive spiral into darkness. Full disclosure – I watched this for about twenty minutes before fast-forwarding to the latter half which I had heard made the first part worth the wait. It didn’t.

2. Aquarela – I honestly have never tried so hard not to fall asleep in the middle of a movie than I have watching this documentary. Boasting new filming techniques and shown with a frame rate to create images that felt close to lifelike, the bells and whistles can’t mask this is a supremely boring film. Charting various forms of water, it’s almost entirely dialogue-free and set to a score that will have you plugging your ears if you haven’t already run for the door. About halfway through, I got the feeling audiences were being tested on their stamina in finding the end purpose and eventually allowed myself to close my eyes. I didn’t fall asleep but could have easily conked out – yet I kept one eye open just so can say that “I Survived Aquarela”.

1. Child’s Play (2019) – Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking the original Child’s Play from 1988 was some untouchable classic – because watching it again shortly after seeing this heinously awful remake (as a palate cleanser) reminded me the one that started it all has its share of clumsy moments. Yet it remains a well-oiled machine of a film, occasional issues aside. That’s not the case with this ill-advised update that’s almost insulting to watch. No real thought went into this, including the performances. Aubrey Plaza should be fined some sort of audience taxation for her dreadful acting – the crummy new doll is even a better actor than her. I was so mad coming out of this movie…and I’m still mad today. Worst of the year, no question about it.

Dis(Honorable) Mentions: Aladdin (2019), Yesterday, Vox Lux, Trick (2019), Lucy in the Sky, Climax, Brightburn

Most Misunderstood: Alita: Battle Angel – this is one that had so much potential but perhaps was too big of a reach even for it’s high-flying filmmakers. I enjoyed this overblown sci-fi film boasting impressive visuals and a motion-captured leading actress. True, this was adapted from an Asian source and the American-ization of it didn’t help, but I have a feeling this is one that people will discover as time goes on and wonder why the hinted at sequel never materialized. A disappointing box office take likely means we won’t get a follow-up on the same scale…but perhaps goodwill will win out.
Honorable Mention: Black Christmas (2019)

Joe’s Humble Pie Award of 2019 (movies that turned out differently than I expected going in): Angel Has Fallen – A silly Gerard Butler vehicle gets some extra attention on my end of the year list? Well it deserves it for being an entertaining entry in Butler’s surprise franchise that casts him as a government agent protecting our national security. The first film, Olympus Has Fallen, was mediocre but fun while the sequel, London Has Fallen, is ghoulishly terrible. I didn’t have high hopes for this one because it seemed to come out of nowhere, but the sneak attack worked to its advantage. Totally was better than I ever thought it would be.
Honorable Mention: Midway (2019)

Two Movies You Probably Haven’t Seen But Should: Wild RoseLuce – I already feel like I’ve been talking about Wild Rose too much and I’m building people up to be let down but it truly is one of those rare indie films that has the goods but not many people have caught on yet. Star Jessie Buckley (Judy) turns in one of my favorite performances of the year, her acting is grand but her singing is off the charts. She could record an album tomorrow and have an entirely other career if she wanted. Sort of in the vein of A Star is Born but not nearly as tragic, it’s my new “go-to” when people ask me what they should watch.
Special mention to Luce for featuring Octavia Spencer’s best performance to date, which ironically isn’t getting any attention in the end of the year awards. What Spencer does in this adaptation of a play is nothing less than extraordinary and coupled with star on the rise Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (Waves), Naomi Watts, and Tim Roth you have a recipe for a movie that’s challenging and will spark discussions after. Absolutely keep your eye open for this one to show up on streaming services soon.

Others to Consider:

Absentia
American Factory
Border (Gräns)
Capernaum (Capharnaüm)
Fighting with My Family
Food Coop
Haunt
Juliet, Naked
Minding the Gap
Science Fair
Secrets & Lies
Swallow
Sweetheart
Tea with the Dames
The Boys from Brazil
The Invitation
The Lost City of Z
The Slumber Party Massacre
The Wedding Banquet (Xi yan)
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before
Vampire Circus

Click HERE for a full listing of films seen in 2019
Total Movies Seen in the Theater: 150
Total Movies Seen at Home: 286
Grand Total for 2019 (not counting films seen multiple times): 430
Where I Saw the Most Movies – Showplace ICON (46!!)

Happy Thanksgiving ~ Planes, Trains and Automobiles


Note: This review originally ran November 23, 2017

The Facts:

Synopsis: A man must struggle to travel home for Thanksgiving with an obnoxious slob of a shower ring salesman his only companion.

Stars: Steve Martin, John Candy, Laila Robins, Michael McKean, Kevin Bacon, Ben Stein, Edie McClurg

Director: John Hughes

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

Original Release Date: November 25, 1987

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: Here’s a movie I’m really, truly thankful for.  30 years (!!!) after its original release, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a gift that has kept on giving to countless people throughout the year but especially at Thanksgiving.  Writing this review in 2017 as I’m about to hit the road to celebrate the holiday with family, I knew I had to get my annual viewing of this one in a day before the big Turkey Day. Revisiting this one is like meeting up with an old friend who tells the same jokes but still delivers them with a master’s precision.

It’s two days before Thanksgiving and marketing exec Neal Page (Steven Martin, Parenthood) is rushing to catch an early flight home to Chicago to be with his family for the holiday.  If only he could make it to the airport.  In mid-day NYC rush hour traffic, he races for a cab with another big shot (Kevin Bacon in a cameo done as a favor to John Hughes right before they made She’s Having a Baby together), gets his cab stolen out from under him by an unseen man toting a large trunk with him, and arrives at the terminal to find his flight delayed.  That’s where he meets Del Griffith (John Candy, Splash), a portly shower ring salesman that turns out to be the cab thief.  When their plane is diverted to Kansas on account of the weather, Neal and Del become unlikely travel mates as they work together to get back to their families.

Hughes was on a real roll at this point, having just come off of directing back to back to back to back hits that have become seminal favorites (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) not to mention writing National Lampoon’s Vacation, Pretty in Pink, and Some Kind of Wonderful.  This was his first movie to deal with real adults and it’s a marvelous pairing of a perfectly assembled cast with Hughes’ hilarious (if episodic) script.  There’s not a single boring moment in the movie, pretty remarkable considering how hard it is to sustain comedy for any length of time, let alone 92 minutes.

The movie is filled with classic scenes.  Martin and Candy waking up in their small hotel bed in an awkward embrace, Martin’s hysterically foul-mouthed run-in with a car rental agent (Edie McClurg, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark), Candy driving cross-country and accidentally getting both of his arms stuck behind him while Martin sleeps, the list goes on.  Hughes is smart enough to have Del be the catalyst for a joke but not make him the ultimate target, to do that would be too cruel to be funny and that’s not what he’s interested in.

Martin is great as the tightly wound Neal who alternates between hating the schlubby Del and hating himself for the way he treats him.  It’s not hard to see why Neal gets so frustrated, either, because Del does himself no favors.  He’s a slob, he takes all the air out of any room he’s in, he doesn’t recognize normal social signals, and he has an uncanny way of destroying anything he touches.  Still, in Candy’s brilliant hands he’s a lovable dude and by the time the movie reaches its surprisingly emotional zenith, you’ll probably be like me and wiping tears away.  Oh yeah, I cry every time I watch the movie…I know I will and have accepted it at this point.

On a personal note, I can’t watch this movie without remembering my late father’s howling laugh when I first saw it.  I can still hear him roaring at Candy’s cluelessness and Martin’s slow-burn reactions.  This was a family favorite of ours and while my dad isn’t here to watch it with me, I think of him constantly when I put it on.  I watch a lot of movies and don’t always take the time to go back and rewatch many films…but there are exceptions and Planes, Trains and Automobiles is certainly one of them.

31 Days to Scare ~ Halloween Treats

So here we are, it’s Halloween!  We’ve made it through 31 days of monsters, slashers, hauntings, old classics, new favorites, and just the occasional disappointment.  Overall, it’s been a good time and I thank you for taking this ghoulish journey with me.  I wanted to leave you with not just one review but with five movies to think of this year if you can’t decide on what to watch after the trick-or-treaters have gone home or if you turned out the lights early and wanted the evening to yourself.  These are some well-tested favorites of mine and even if you have your own list of movies that are Halloween traditions keep these five scary selections in mind for the future.

Hope you had a great 31 Days to Scare!  

The Facts:

Synopsis: When the king of Halloween Town, Jack Skellington, gets bored of his job preparing for Halloween every year, he discovers Christmas Town and is inspired to take control of Christmas season for a change. Unfortunately his ghoulish subjects have difficulty getting the festive holiday quite right.

Stars: Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, William Hickey, Glenn Shadix, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Reubens

Director: Henry Selick

Rated: PG

Running Length: 76 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  You’ve stuck with me all month so I’m going to let you in on a big secret that I’ve kept – I HATED this movie the first time I saw it.  I thought it was so slow, so stupid, and I couldn’t wait for it to be over.  Flash forward several years and I watched it again on video and wondered what the hell my problem was when I originally caught it in theaters.  This stop-motion animated film based on a poem by Tim Burton has now become a treasured favorite of mine, not just for its clever wit and gorgeous technical elements but for its beautiful music and story.  Watching Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon but sung by Danny Elfman) grow weary with his reign as king of Halloweentown and finding pure joy when he discovers Christmastown is a delight whether you consider this a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie.  If you can’t decide, maybe split the difference and make it a Thanksgiving option… It does skew a bit older due to some intense sequences with impish kidnappers and a main villain that’s bug-infested, so it’s not for young children (hence the PG rating) but for kids not yet old enough for more adult fare (and PLEASE, let them be kids a while longer!) this is a good option.  You just might get sucked in too!  I just love this one.

The Facts:

Synopsis: In a tiny California town, high school students discover a strange, gelatinous substance that melts the flesh of any living creatures in its path.

Stars: Kevin Dillon, Shawnee Smith, Donovan Leitch Jr., Jeffrey DeMunn, Candy Clark, Joe Seneca

Director: Chuck Russell

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: You can keep the memories of 1958 original version of The Blob safely in your heart and still find immense fun with this dynamite 1988 remake.  Director Chuck Russell pivoted off the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors to this wonderful update about an outer space goo that lands on the outskirts of a California town and begins to feed off of any living thing it comes in contact with.  The more it eats, the bigger it gets and it proves to be an unstoppable force capable of getting in anywhere it wants…like it has a mind of its own.  Recently released in a new Collector’s Edition BluRay from Scream Factory, The Blob is often mentioned in discussions of best modern remakes and for good reason.  It moves like a locomotive and boasts some great effects…and it’s funny too!  Aside from star Kevin Dillon’s remarkable mullet, it’s aged fairly well also.  This is a good one to have in your back pocket if you have friends coming over – it’s short enough to not take up all of your night and so surprisingly entertaining that you’ll earn points for suggesting it.  A fun ride — this is a title I always wished I was old enough to have seen when it first played in theaters.

The Facts:

Synopsis: Ichabod Crane is sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate the decapitations of three people, with the culprit being the legendary apparition, The Headless Horseman.

Stars: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Michael Gough

Director: Tim Burton

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: So here’s another one that I eventually came around to after not loving it the first time.  With Sleepy Hollow, I think my expectations were so high that it came down to me just feeling like it wasn’t the movie I wanted it to be when actually Tim Burton gave me something much more sophisticated.  I watched this one again a year or so ago and was surprised at a) how fully immersed into the time period the movie brought audiences and b) how deliciously frightening some moments were.  Burton and his often used muse Depp were firing on all cylinders here and even if Depp’s Ichabod Crane was painted as a bit more of an outcast than an odd duck, he’s still presented as a sympathetic lead audiences could relate to.  Burton hadn’t fully given himself over to being so CGI heavy and while there are large portions of the movie relying on computer effects an equal amount is practical as well.  Add to that some fun supporting performances by a stable of faces familiar to old school horror fans as well as a whodunit mystery element that diverged from Washington Irving’s original story and you have something that feels fresh.  A good date night scary movie thanks to some nice jolts, a decent amount of blood, and a quirky Gothic romance between Depp and co-star Christina Ricci.

The Facts:

Synopsis: A family heads to an isolated hotel for the winter where a sinister presence influences the father into violence, while his psychic son sees horrific forebodings from both past and future.

Stars: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Rated: R

Running Length: 144 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: You don’t have to use the November 8 release of Doctor Sleep, the Stephen King-penned sequel to his 1977 novel The Shining as an excuse to revisit Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation.  This is one movie that works any time of year but add in that extra layer of Halloween atmosphere and the tale of a man driven insane while serving as a imposing hotel’s winter caretaker and you have a doozy of a scare fest.  Kubrick infamously made alterations to the novel that King didn’t approve of but audiences haven’t seemed to care much over the years, routinely naming The Shining one of the all-time great horror films.  It’s extended running time requests your full attention and Jack Nicholson’s lead performance demands it – that indelible image of his crazed face pressed against a door as he tries to get to his unraveling wife (poor Shelley Duvall who really suffered making this film) and troubled son (a grating Danny Lloyd) is burned into many a memory.  The supernatural elements of the movie are handled by Kubrick with a mix of reality and fantasy, blurring the lines constantly so we’re as off-kilter as Nicholson is by the time he fully loses it.  It’s a completely unforgettable film that I’ve come to appreciate more the older I get.  Those wanting to do an even deeper dive into the mythology behind the movie should check out the documentary Room 237.

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of women organize a trip into a large cave. After descending underground, the women find strange paintings and evidence of an earlier expedition, then learn they are not alone.

Stars: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, Nora-Jane Noone, MyAnna Buring

Director: Neil Marshall

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: For the strong-willed among you, The Descent is a great option to test your mettle.  It’s one of the best horror films to come out in the last few decades and remains one of the single most frightening movies I’ve seen.  I remember watching this in theaters and at one point wondering who just yelped so loudly…only to realize it was me.  I spent most of the running time either holding my breath or gripping my armrest, a relaxing experience this most definitely was not.  It was an incredibly satisfying one though, from a horror fan angle, because it delivered a nearly flawless presentation of a bad dream that turns into an all-out nightmare.  Opening with a bang before letting the audience get a breather for about 20 minutes, the action picks up again when friends get trapped in an underground cave and find out far too late they have more to worry about than finding another exit.  Who or what is down there with them is fingers-over-the-eyes scary and director Neil Marshall is unrelenting in the vice grip he puts on the audience.  Fighting for survival and with matters complicated by personal demons surfacing, the women are intelligent but not above pushing each other buttons when stressed.  This is horror at its most primal, consistently going for the ultimate nerve-shredding scare/visual and Marshall doesn’t make a wrong step.  The ending, usually a sticking point in horror movies, is handled well and I can say the movie got a better than average sequel without it spoiling anything for you.  If you can handle it, take a journey with The Descent.  One of the very few movies that can be called a modern classic and have it mean something.

31 Days to Scare ~ High Spirits

The Facts:

Synopsis: The owner of an Irish castle decides to attract visitors by falsely claiming the building is haunted, only to have a pair of real ancestral spirits start causing trouble…

Stars: Peter O’Toole, Daryl Hannah, Steve Guttenberg, Beverly D’Angelo, Liam Neeson, Peter Gallagher, Jennifer Tilly, Donal McCann, Mary Coughlan, Liz Smith, Tom Hickey, Tony Rohr

Director: Neil Jordan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  As another October was drawing to a close and it was getting time to step away from focusing solely on scary movies for the year, I was thinking about what to feature for the last few posts.  I knew I’d cover some well-known titles and already planned out my Halloween entry but it was that last day, the 30th, that had me scratching my head.  Then it hit me…or actually it came crashing down.  I was just waking up this morning when a unexpectedly picture fell off the wall, causing a great deal of noise and starting the day off with a startle.  A faulty nail is the assured culprit but…what if a ghost was having some fun with me in the early hours?  For some reason, it got me in haunting mood and my mind went right to High Spirits, a silly but fun favorite of mine.

Now, let’s be clear.  A horror movie this is not so if you’re looking for blood, guts, and gore you can skip to tomorrow but if you need a spooky/goofy respite from suspense and are up for a trip back to the late ‘80s you have come to the right place.  Released in 1988 to mediocre reviews and no box office, this isn’t exactly an unheralded classic that didn’t get its due.  While I personally find it to be a riot, at the time it arrived in theaters audiences were already distancing themselves from this broad type of farce.  Over time, I think the movie has aged well and the cast is chock full of familiar faces, many of whom are turning in sharp and ribald performances.

Poor Peter Plunkett (Peter O’Toole, The Stunt Man) is having trouble getting guests to stay at his castle in the Irish countryside.  Though the place is in need of repair, Plunkett and his staff of locals don’t do much to spruce it up to make it more appealing to the tourist trade.  When he’s (literally) at the end of his rope, a light bulb for an idea goes off when he’s reminded by his boozy mother (a delightful Liz Smith) about the numerous ghosts that supposedly live in the castle.  Why not market the castle as haunted and, once the guests arrive, fake the appearances to create massive buzz?  That should keep the rooms occupied and the cash coming in.  Right?

The plan works…almost.  When the first batch of tourists arrive, they include Jack (Steve Guttenberg, Diner) and Sharon (Beverly D’Angelo, The Sentinel) a couple on their second honeymoon and they clearly need it.  She’s an uptight city gal while he’s looking forward to getting the most out of their creepy Irish adventure.  They’re joined by a priest (Peter Gallagher, Hello, My Name is Doris), a sexpot (Jennifer Tilly), and a demanding family from the suburbs (led by Martin Ferrero from Jurassic Park).  The staff do their best to give the group a good scare but the results are less than thrilling.  Figuring out they’ve been duped pretty quickly, the guests plan their escape…and that’s when Jack meets Mary Plunkett (Daryl Hannah, Splash!), Peter’s very beautiful but very dead relative.

Murdered on her wedding night by a jealous husband (Liam Neeson, The Haunting) and doomed to repeat the violent act nightly for eternity, when Jack intervenes in a drunken daze it breaks the cycle and Mary is freed to be a regular old spirit.  Grateful to Jack for freeing her, the two strike up a connection that neither really found with their significant other.  The movie then becomes your typical boy meets ghost story, further complicated by her dead husband and his living wife getting into the mix.  All this happens while Plunkett tries to keep the other guests out of harm’s way when their less than haunted experience gets very real after the rest of the Plunkett ancestors get roused and the line between the living and the dead is tested.

Written and directed by Neil Jordan (who would score an Oscar four years later for The Crying Game and also gave us Greta in 2019), the movie is total Sunday afternoon rainy-day fare and I think it’s a lot of fun.  It’s obviously not trying to be a classic in any sense but it has some memorable moments and performances that are off-the-wall enough to be quite amusing.  Smith is a hoot at Peter’s mum who is always three sheets to the wind while it’s nice to see Neeson so early in his career in a lark of a comedic role.  Guttenberg and D’Angelo can play these types of roles in their sleep but they’re engaging nonetheless and Hannah makes for a lovely apparition.  The production design of the castle is impressive and, haunted or not, you’ll likely wish a similar stay would be in your future.

High art?  No.  High Spirits?  Yes.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Ring (2002)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A journalist must investigate a mysterious videotape that seems to cause the death of anyone one week to the day after they view it.

Stars: Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson, David Dorfman, Brian Cox, Jane Alexander, Lindsay Frost

Director: Gore Verbinski

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: There’s nothing like seeing a movie in a packed theater.  Nothing.  I don’t care if it’s a high octane action adventure, a period drama, or a raucous comedy, the energy that comes from being shoulder to shoulder with a group of people all having the same shared experience is not something that can be duplicated at home.  That’s especially true with horror movies because often it’s hearing the shrieks of others that add to the engagement of the crowd – maybe you chuckle at the screamer for jumping at such an obvious moment or perhaps you nervously laugh because it could have been you that let out that great big yelp.

I vividly remember being jam-packed into a theater for an early screening of The Ring in October of 2002 and feeling a palpable tension before the movie even began.  The trailer for the movie was pretty freaky and while the general plot of the movie was known, not much more had been revealed so unless you were familiar with the original Japanese novel by Kôji Suzuki or 1998 movie you likely were going into the film without any idea of what you were in for.  Being a remake of a Japanese film, this isn’t simply an outright horror gore fest but a mystery with terror elements coming into play as the protagonist gets closer to the truth.  Even rewatching it recently, I was pleasantly surprised how well it held up after all these years…especially the scares.

An investigative reporter (Naomi Watts, Luce) looks into the death of her niece and uncovers a supernatural evil that follows her home.  A videotape exists that, once watched, will start a cycle of death and madness that must be stopped before seven days have passed.  When her son (David Dorfman) is exposed to the tape she works with her ex-boyfriend (Martin Henderson, Everest) to find the origin of the VHS, eventually tracing it to a family haunted by secrets living on a remote island.  As the days tick away and an evil presence grows closer, the journalist must figure out how to break the curse before it comes for her.

It’s nice to remember that of all the remakes of Japanese horror films, The Ring was the first out of the gate and is the most successful of the lot.  Director Gore Verbinski (The Lone Ranger) and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (Dumbo) have taken the original 1998 film Ringu from Hideo Nakata and nicely transplanted it to Washington state in addition to other easy adjustments for US audiences.  It’s lacking in some of the subtleties that helped make Ringu so frightening but it achieves its own share of scares that are often as memorable.  Verbinski’s film looks great and I’d only wish the performances were a bit more even-keeled throughout.  Watts makes for a strong and competent lead but she’s prone to jump into wild-eyed mode at the drop of a hat.  Less successful are Henderson and Dorfman as the two men in her life…both are kinda duds and feel like they get in the way of Watts when she’s trying to keep the picture chugging along.

Inspiring an uninspired sequel (that brought back director Hideo Nakata) and an even worse third film that barely got released, I’m dreading the day when I hear this is going to be remade in a similar fashion to The Grudge.  Another US remake may improve The Grudge which was never that strong to begin with but The Ring got it right out of the gate so there’s nothing to be gained from restarting from the ground up.  I enjoy this movie for its craftsmanship and high scare factor – no improvement needed.

31 Days to Scare ~ Haunt

The Facts:

Synopsis: On Halloween, a group of friends encounter an “extreme” haunted house that promises to feed on their darkest fears. The night turns deadly as they come to the horrifying realization that some nightmares are real.

Stars: Katie Stevens, Will Brittain, Lauryn Alisa McClain, Andrew Caldwell, Shazi Raja, Schuyler Helford

Director: Scott Beck & Bryan Woods

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Let me tell you, every October I go on high alert looking for a newer horror film I can get behind.  With so many ways for filmmakers to deliver scares to us now (theatrically, streaming, etc.) it can be tough to keep track of everything that comes out so it’s best to go where the buzz is.  Horror fans are a picky bunch and while we often will feast happily on even meager scraps if available, when there’s the opportunity to eat like royalty we’ll let everyone else know what’s for dinner.  So when I heard Haunt was gathering some strong word of mouth momentum in its on-demand release I made it a priority to get it to it before the month was over.

I’ve come to not put too much credence in advertising for horror movies that say “from the writers of” or “from the studio that brought you” just because it rarely equates to little more than evoking your positive thoughts of that previous release.  In the case of Haunt, the presence of producer Eli Roth (The House with a Clock in Its Walls) didn’t intrigue me as much as the bit about the film coming from the writers of the clever surprise hit A Quiet Place, Scott Beck & Bryan Woods.  Beck and Woods direct Haunt as well and it’s interesting to note it finished filming in November 2017, the same time as A Quiet Place, though it’s only coming out now.  Whatever the delays were, they were worth it because Haunt is a real diamond in the rough – a focused horror movie that, while not always original in thought, is genuinely scary.

As a way to clear her mind after breaking up with her abusive boyfriend, Harper (Katie Stevens) spends Halloween night with her roommate Bailey (Lauryn Alisa McClain) and their two friends Angela (Shazi Raja) and Mallory (Schuyler Helford).  A noisy club doesn’t prove to be any fun and definitely doesn’t get them in the Halloween spirit so after meeting Nathan (Will Brittain, Everybody Wants Some!!) and Evan (Andrew Caldwell) the group decides to look for another venue that’s a bit more in line with the spooky holiday.  A flyer boasting an Extreme Haunted House catches their eye and before you know it the six are headed out into the middle of nowhere searching for the location where the big scares are.  We’ve already seen a little of the inside during the credit sequence, watching an unseen figure making preparations but it isn’t clear until they arrive just how isolated it is.

Now, if Haunt were made ten years ago audiences may have balked at the willingness of the guys and gals to enter the sketchy looking industrial rundown warehouse but we’re in the era when an old-school haunted house just doesn’t cut it.  Many scare-hounds are now looking for that extra bit of realism and lived-in experience that puts them in the center of an attraction that feels dangerous.  So when Harper and her friends have to sign waivers and relinquish their cell phones it doesn’t seem that odd of a request.  At first, the space seems fairly standard but the deeper they travel (and the more clown-mask wearing staff they meet) the more they realize this really isn’t like anything they’ve seen before, it’s far deadlier.  As they are separated by various detours and trap doors they are hunted by a malevolent gang sporting nightmare-inducing masks and maybe something even freakier underneath.

Blessedly, while Haunt is gore-heavy it’s not of the Saw variety where it veers toward torturous rather than creative.  As someone that has worked in a similar haunted house that was built from the ground up inside an old factory, the production design is spot on and is elaborate enough to suggest significant work went into the mazes and puzzle rooms but not so over designed that it would come off as unbelievable.  Also, a few of the rooms are super creepy and unsettling, with an eerie menace that’s helped along by solid performances from the cast.  The make-up effects are well done and more than a few sights for sure gave me goosebumps.

It’s also nice to report that Haunt actually has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  There’s no prolonged finale that drags on or multiple fake-outs capped off with a last blast to goose you up and out of your seat.  Though it may strain just a tiny bit to get past that 90 minute marker, it does so by taking its time with the stalking scenes.  This gives the terrorized guests an actual shot at fighting back instead of just rolling over and awaiting their fate.  Attempts at character development are noble, though it’s really only Harper that gets any kind of major movement in that area.  The motives for the staff of the haunted house aren’t quite clear but their actions speak (scream) louder than words.

Easily a top recommendation in 2019 for those looking for something brand new to tune into this Halloween, Haunt is handled with care and intelligence.  It provides the requisite scares but also supplies another layer of creepy that is much appreciated.  I can see this being one people are excited to discover down the line and it’s absolutely one I’d enjoy introducing friends to.

31 Days to Scare ~ What Lies Beneath

The Facts:

Synopsis: The wife of a university research scientist believes that her lakeside Vermont home is haunted by a ghost – or that she is losing her mind.

Stars: Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Miranda Otto, James Remar, Wendy Crewson, Amber Valletta

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  As we are pummeled with more and more content in streaming services and theatrical distribution, I’m finding that I have less and less confidence in feeling satisfied with my overall experience.  There’s simply too much coming too fast and that has led me to latch on to older films that I know will always deliver.  Cinematic comfort-food, these movies can be relied on to provide laughs, thrills, chills, or tears exactly when I want them with little risk involved.  Around this time of year, I’m clearly in the mood for some scares and though it’s nice to explore the available new releases and to dig into the past to discover overlooked older titles there comes a time when only the true-blue winners will do.  The time is now.  And What Lies Beneath is one such film.

On paper, you couldn’t have asked for a more perfect movie in the eyes of this critic back in 2000.  A lifelong Michelle Pfeiffer Pfan (not sure if that’s a thing, but I’m starting it now) and having grown up on Harrison Ford adventures, watching them being teamed up in a Robert Zemeckis suspense/thriller was just too very good to be true.  I trolled the movie websites endlessly for news of the production, bought the poster and hung it in my room, watched the trailer on repeat, and was there opening night to see the finished product.  Delivering on every promised level, it’s a well-orchestrated, old-fashioned scare machine that unapologetically jolts you as much as it can in 130 minutes.

After sending her only daughter off to college, Claire Spencer (Pfeiffer, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) is dealing with the empty nest blues in her New England lake house.  With her university professor husband Norman (Ford, Blade Runner 2049) busy working days and long nights at the college, she’s often alone and becomes interested in the tempestuous couple who have moved in next door.  Eventually turning into full-on nosy neighbor with binoculars in tow, Claire is startled when she witnesses the wife (Miranda Otto, Annabelle: Creation) having a private emotional outburst that hints she’s somehow scared of her spouse (James Remar, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood).  When the wife disappears and a ghostly spirit seems to start sending Claire messages, she becomes convinced a sinister presence has descended over the house.  What she doesn’t expect is just how close to home the spirit may be.

Fans of the Marvel movies will be interested to note the screenplay was written by Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson in Iron Man, etc.) and he’s done a good job, especially in the first hour, of establishing Claire and Norman’s relationship and how it changes the more she believes she’s being haunted.  Norman is sympathetic to his wife’s feelings, having supported her through a recent accident, but can’t quite get on board with her paranormal paranoia.  Gregg’s script does shift into a different gear that is clearly a nod to Alfred Hitchcock and it’s not the last of the twists the movie has in store for us.  True, if you watch the preview (which I highly suggest you Do Not Do) you’ll have picked up on the turn of events but almost 20 years after its release I think we’re far enough along that you could watch the movie again and not remember where it’s heading.

Made during a hiatus in filming Cast Away when Tom Hanks was losing all that weight, Zemeckis (Welcome to Marwen) pulls out all his bag of tricks and creates a few new ones along the way.  There is one camera move in particular involving Ford and Pfeiffer that’s often cited as a “How’d They Do That” moment and it is quite impressive.  The entire film looks amazing with each piece perfectly assembled and every clue exactly where it needs to be to assist audiences in putting the puzzle together.  Even if you are a few steps ahead of the Spencers in figuring it all out, you’ll still be impressed with what Zemeckis and his team have done in the presentation of the film.  As mentioned before, the scares are plentiful and become relentless in the final forty minutes.  Not just relegated to jump scares, some genuinely hair-raising moments and shocks come when you are the least prepared for them.

While Ford may get top billing, this is Pfeiffer’s film all the way.  In nearly every scene of the movie, she’s totally glorious as a woman already a tad emotionally vulnerable teetering on the edge of feeling crazy but also knowing she’s not imagining the strange occurrences and sights that are happening in her house.  She’s gets ample support from an energized Ford who would soon turn into a bit of a grumpy presence in film; he’s quite invested here playing against his usual action hero role type as a man with imperfections that may be contributing in part to what’s happening with his wife.  Pfeiffer has to go through a lot, spending a large portion of the film soaking wet but it’s all in great service to the success of the performance and film.  In a small supporting role, Diana Scarwid (Mommie Dearest) is kooky fun as Claire’s eccentric friend.  Though I get the impression more of her work was left on the editing room floor, what little we see of her brings a welcome lightness to the movie.

Released in the summer of 2000 to great box office and becoming the 10th highest grossing film of the year, it surprised me critics weren’t kinder in their original takes on the film.  Sure, it’s definitely derivative of Hitchcock and yeah, of course it would have been more enjoyable had the trailer not given away one major twist which rendered the first hour almost inconsequential, but not totally. Thanks to Pfeiffer’s commitment alone, there’s a high-class of sophistication to this thriller so few movies aspired to even back then.  We definitely don’t have movies like this anymore…all the more reason to celebrate the shivers it so gleefully gives.

31 Days to Scare ~ Paradise Hills

The Facts:

Synopsis: A mysterious boarding school perfectly reforms wayward girls to fit their surroundings’ exact desires.

Stars: Emma Roberts, Eiza Gonzalez, Awkwafina, Danielle Macdonald, Milla Jovovich, Jeremy Irvine

Director: Alice Waddington

Rated: NR

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: When Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives was first published, in 1972 it came at a time when the women’s liberation movement was starting to gain greater momentum on a national level and the book served as a good reminder that conformity could be downright dangerous.  Adapted as a chilling movie in 1975, the term “Stepford Wife” became a term used to describe a woman who appeared submissive to her spouse – not the nicest of terms.  A 2004 remake tried hard to update the social satire for a different generation in the new millennium but studio tinkering and behind-the-scenes turmoil turned the film into a sour mess.

There’s a whiff of Stepford hanging over the new release Paradise Hills but don’t go looking for extreme similarities between the two because this is better than just another reimagining of that original text.  Written by Nacho Vigalondo and Brian DeLeeuw working from a story by director Alice Waddington, it takes some ideas from Levin but largely cuts its own path in creating a creative narrative.  Waddington, a Spanish artist making her feature directing debut, contributes a highly visual film that doesn’t compensate flair for plot.  It’s artsty-fartsy but still takes time to connect the dots.

Kicking things off with a glam wedding designed to the hilt, Waddington takes some inspiration from Tarsem (The Cell) in her camera movements and attention to details in the foreground and background.  It’s nuptials day for Uma (Emma Roberts, We’re the Millers) and while she smiles, greets her guests and sings a song for her new husband, something doesn’t seem quite right.  Later that evening we’ll find out why but not before flashing back several months to Uma arriving at Paradise, an isolated island she’s been sent to for refusing to marry the man her parents set her up with.  Independent and single-minded, she loves another (Jeremy Irvine, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) and wants to live free from the constraints of her family and societal norms.

Ruled by the Duchess (Milla Jovovich, Zoolander 2), Paradise is a tranquil finishing (more like re-finishing) school wealthy families can send their daughters to if they are in need of a little attitude adjustment.  Maybe they need to lose weight like Chloe (Danielle Macdonald, The East), perhaps they struggle with anxiety disorder like Yu (Awkwafina, The Farewell) or, in the case of famous pop singer Amarna (Eiza Gonzalez, Welcome to Marwen), they could just need a break from mainstream culture.  At first, the courses administered are designed to change their outward appearance but things take a darker turn when the inward feelings are targeted.

As the girls get closer they begin to see the island and its presiding Duchess have a devious plan for them all, one that’s been hidden in the depths of the labyrinthine estate they live in.  When girls start disappearing and the Duchess begins to demonstrate some rather strange behavior that seems to have a direct impact on the island’s flora, Uma leads her new friends in a plan to escape before their nightmare stay in Paradise becomes permanent.  Unable to stay awake through the night to explore what is being kept from them, Uma and Amarna team up to find a way to outwit the authority figures and get to the bottom of what seems to be coming for them.

While not as outright a horror film as I could see it tiptoeing around at times wanting to be, enough of the action is steeped in mystery that you can’t help but feel its occasional electric charge when it uncovers another clue.  The solution is fairly obvious but the answer isn’t as simple as you’d expect.  The performances are strong throughout, with Roberts continuing to hone her skills and improving with each role she takes on.  I especially liked Jovovich playing a quasi-fairy tale queen with a sinister edge.  If this had been made ten years ago, I could easily have seen Jovovich in the Roberts role.  Though hampered by some limitations in budget and issues with follow-through of the intriguing ideas it introduces, it succeeds more than I anticipated it would.

31 Days to Scare ~ Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street

The Facts:

Synopsis: Sets the records straight about the controversial sequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street, which ended Mark Patton’s acting career, just as it was about to begin.

Stars: Mark Patton, Marshall Bell, David Chaskin, Robert Englund, Robert Rusler, Kim Myers, Clu Gulager

Director: Roman Chimienti, Tyler Jensen

Rated: NR

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: For a long time, whenever I was in the mood to have a marathon of the films in the Nightmare on Elm Street series I faced a dilemma early on in the run.  What to do about that first sequel?  A completist by nature, I hated the thought of skipping over our first foray back to the world of Freddy Krueger but it was so different than the original and positioned itself as a standalone tale that it pretty much took itself out of the line-up.  Not that I thought the film was bad, mind you, it just didn’t give off the same uneasy vibe of it predecessor nor did it advance the mythology like the next two sequels which are arguably the high-points of the entire lengthy series.  Still, when you see how jokey and not-so-scary Freddy became it’s interesting to look back at A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge and give some credit to the filmmakers for producing another chapter that didn’t come out of the gate looking for cheap thrills.

Debuting to mixed reviews but good box-office, the success of the sequel made it possible for Freddy to go on slicing his way for the next several decades but there was one major casualty of the film and he’s by and large the subject of the new documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street.  Screened at the 2019 Twin Cities Film Festival with the directors and star in attendance, this documentary offers a tiny bit of behind-the scenes info on Freddy’s Revenge but is mostly centered on actor Mark Patton and the journey he’s been on since the movie debuted in 1985.  An actor on the rise, starring in this huge sequel should have cemented his entry into stardom but it wound up closing the door on his dreams.

To hear him tell it, Patton made it big in New York City almost from the moment he arrived.  National commercials led to a role in a Robert Altman play (co-starring Cher) which was then filmed as a well-regarded movie.  Not long after that, he got the offer to star in the Nightmare sequel and though his acting friends scoffed at ever starring in a horror film, he saw it as an opportunity to take his career to the next level.  As filming commenced, Patton came to realize a subtext intended to be subtle in the screenplay by David Chaskin was coming through loud and clear but ultimately trusted director Jack Sholder to ensure his performance wasn’t straying too far off course.  Seeing the film for the first time his worst fears were confirmed and that’s when Patton’s career was forever changed.

Freddy’s Revenge was released in the midst of the rise of the AIDS epidemic when there was still a lot of uncertainty regarding the disease and how it was transmitted.  That led to fear, suspicion, and for most gay men in Hollywood to keep their sexuality a secret for fear of losing jobs and friends.  Patton, a gay man not out of the closet, was living with his actor boyfriend in California and found himself in the spotlight when the homoerotic tones of the movie were pointed out by several publications.  Looking at the movie now, it’s pretty blatant what Chaskin was trying to say and what Sholder had filmed (though Sholder unconvincingly claims he was clueless) so it’s not as if people went seeking for something that wasn’t there to begin with like Room 237 did a few years back.

With his agents claiming they were unable to send him in for leading man roles thinking he could no longer play straight, Patton retreated to Mexico where he lived in obscurity for the next two decades.  He likely would have spent his years there, too, if the 2010 documentary Never Sleep Again hadn’t interviewed him and brought back to the forefront of the Freddy fandom.  Reigniting interest in the movie and sadly fanning the flames of old hatred and bigotry, Patton emerged from his imposed retirement to reclaim his title as the first male Scream Queen and has spent the last years touring fan conventions and meeting the fans he has had an impact on.  Along the way, he achieves (or attempts to achieve) some closure with former cast mates, the director who didn’t realize how high the stakes were for his star, and the screenwriter that originally distanced himself from the movie and blamed Patton for its gay leaning only to begin to take credit when the film found a new audience that embraced its outsider status.

Directors Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen have been working on the documentary with Patton for a number of years and it doesn’t hold back from showing the good and bad side of the fame game.  Patton knows this is a business and his job is to show up for his fans because they’re paying a lot of money to meet him at these conventions.  He also knows the toll it takes on him physically and the movie follows him through endless days of travel and public appearances, with Patton miraculously never losing his temper or being brusque after the fans have left for the day.  You get the sense that Patton is genuine in all areas of his life and he’s remarkably candid about his experiences over the years.

At the Q & A afterward, Patton mentioned the movie was edited 70 times and it shows.  While it’s well filmed, it does feel choppy in certain places as it jumps around showing Patton’s home life with his husband, fan appearances, talking about the filming of the movie, and then detailing his personal story growing  up.  There’s also a wealth of interviews from other gay filmmakers, scholars, and horror fans speaking about not only what this particular movie means to them but what it’s like to live as a gay person now and throughout history.  It’s a lot of information to digest and, while valuable, sometimes appears a bit unfocused in what story is truly being told.  Another whole film is in there somewhere about horror movies and the AIDS epidemic and Chimienti and Jensen just needed to flesh it out a bit more.

Patton is such an engaging person that you’ll want to spend this time with him and by the end of the documentary you’ll likely wonder what his career would have been had minds not been so narrow in 1985.  The reality is this.  The movie didn’t feature an awards worthy turn from him and, truth-be-told, some of it is a bit overblown for my taste but it’s certainly infused with more pathos than the genre required.  As for it being a “gay” movie, well, you just have to watch the movie and decide for yourself.  It’s difficult to see the movie now knowing its reputation and not see the signs but considering it was conceived as a quick sequel to a horror film it has had remarkable way of staying in the conversation.  Thankfully, so has Patton.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Invitation

The Facts:

Synopsis: A man accepts an invitation to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife, an unsettling affair that reopens old wounds and creates new tensions.

Stars: Logan Marshall-Green, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman, Mike Doyle, John Carroll Lynch

Director: Karyn Kusama

Rated: NR

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: It was right about the time director Karyn Kusama’s debut feature film premiered when I was starting to get keyed into independent cinema.  I’d worn out my multiplex and its weekly mainstream fare and now that I was able to make more informed movie choices for myself I became a regular at our local art house theaters that had a rotation of the latest buzzed about films as well as titles I’ve literally never heard anything about since.  I remember reading in 2000 how Kusama’s Girlfight made a splash at Cannes and won her the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival so you bet I was there on opening weekend to see that powerhouse arrival of both her and star Michelle Rodriguez (Widows).

In the years that followed, Kusama had a tough road with two failed projects (Aeon Flux and Jennifer’s Body) that may have looked good on paper but didn’t pan out for whatever reason, be it audience appetite or problems inherent with the movies themselves.  I certainly don’t think it was due to Kusama’s efforts as the director because she’s always maintained a unique voice at the table, very much in the vein of a Kathryn Bigelow.  However, in Hollywood, if a movie doesn’t take off it’s often the director that shoulders the blame and especially if you’re a female you’re put into a director’s jail even faster.  So Kusama lingered in limbo for a bit before coming back in a big way with The Invitation.

Kusama’s modern horror film is set in the Hollywood hills in the home of Eden and David.  They’re hosting a dinner party for their close friends they haven’t seen in two years.  After meeting in a grief support group, they’ve been away in Mexico and have returned renewed in spirit and eager to share their newfound peace.  Eden (Tammy Blanchard, Into the Woods) has invited her ex-husband Will (Logan Marshall-Green, Prometheus) and his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and Will, still struggling with his painful history with Eden has accepted the invite more out of curiosity than anything else.  Even so, he knows the house holds troubling memories of their life together and a tragedy that occurred that drove them apart…so he’s feeling out of sorts even before he pulls in the driveway.  With strong support from Kira, they enter the party.  Guests arrive, pleasantries are exchanged, and then things get…weird.

Part of what has helped Eden and David (Michiel Huisman, World War Z) get through these past two years was the Invitation, a spiritual philosophy led by Dr. Joseph (Toby Huss, Halloween) and it’s a practice they have come to believe in and follow with their whole selves.  Of course, their friends have trouble accepting what sounds like a cult and while the night moves forward, it’s not without a little discomfort from all involved. When quirky houseguest Sadie and the hulking Pruitt, both followers of Dr. Joseph, are introduced to the guests and further elements of the group’s history are revealed, Will begins to suspect they’ve all been asked over for something more than a reunion.

Like that one party guest that doesn’t read social signals, The Invitation overstays its welcome a bit with the film getting a bit too cerebral in its mid-section finding Will repeating the same paranoid conversation, albeit with different people, several times.  While the camera work by Bobby Shore makes good use of the mouse-trap design of Eden’s Los Angeles bungalow, there’s a lot of slow moving shots of the friends eating and drinking (or walking upstairs) that seem redundant.  The one great use of slow motion coupled with excellent sound design happens near the end but its centers on a key moment I wouldn’t spoil for you.

Working off a script co-written by her husband, Phil Hay and his writing partner Matt Manfredi (the trio also worked on 2018’s Nicole Kidman vehicle Destroyer), Kusama’s  film is all atmosphere from the first frame and it’s a nerve jangling experience.  It’s an uncomfortable watch and that’s the point.  Like Will, the audience is supposed to feel slightly out-of-place and trapped – it aids in Will’s growing paranoia and in the dread we feel as a viewer.  Is Will reading too much into Eden and David’s overly friendly demeanor and their pushy insistence on group harmony or does he truly have something to be concerned about? The answers to all the questions posed throughout are held back for a long time, with the script turning you in one direction before leading you down another path.  It’s not as simple a solution as it appears to be…or is it?  It could be…but then again…

I’ve seen The Invitation twice now and both times I was on the edge of my seat, even on the second watch knowing how everything was going to snap into place. The performances are quietly guarded, perfect for the characters that emerge during the course of the film. The horror elements are carefully doled out and it should please those who enjoy a little sophistication in their screams. While not everyone will be glad they accepted The Invitation, it’s the kind of sturdy film that digs itself under your skin like a rogue splinter.  It will definitely make you appreciate your next dinner party that goes off without a hitch…