Movie Review ~ Kindred


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Plagued by mysterious hallucinations, a pregnant woman suspects that the family of her deceased boyfriend has intentions for her unborn child.

Stars: Tamara Lawrance, Fiona Show, Jack Lowden, Anton Lesser, Edward Holcroft, Chloe Pirrie

Director: Joe Marcantonio

Rated: NR

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: The best ways that horror can get at us is at the places we are the most vulnerable.  That’s why Psycho made showers so terrifying – you’re totally exposed and defenseless with just a thin sheet of plastic between you and a steamy room of shadows.  Your mind will play tricks on you if you are in the wrong head space.  Same thing goes for JAWS.  There’s a reason why beaches were suddenly a little quieter the summer of 1975 when Steven Spielberg’s big shark film snacked on swimmers and munched away at the box office.  If you’re out in the middle of the ocean, unable to get away from an unseen danger that lurks below…what can you do?  Stick with a pool, is my advice.  Even then…remember the 1980 movie Alligator?  On second thought, stick to bathtubs.  Wait, we’re back to Psycho again.

All this to say, a vulnerable state is a bad place to be if you’re in a horror film and that’s where Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance, On Chesil Beach) finds herself not too long after the start of Kindred, a new streaming film from the always dependable studio IFC Midnight (make sure to check out their other 2020 releases like Sputnik, The Wretched, Relic, and Centigrade).  Similar to Rosemary’s Baby, this revolves around a pregnant woman that starts to have visions of danger and suffers from paranoia dismissed by those she trusts as her due date approaches.  Unlike that classic Roman Polanski supernatural film (adapted from the bestselling Ira Levin book) however, there’s no apartment building with devil worshipping residents to wander around in, just a chilly English mansion that’s in need of a good restoration with two rather intense hosts never out of earshot.

Growing up with a mother that suffered terrible postpartum depression that spilled over into other mental health issues, Charlotte knew she never wanted to be a mother herself.  So when she finds out from the village doctor she’s pregnant just as she and her boyfriend Ben (Edward Holcroft, Vampire Academy) announced to his mother Margaret (Fiona Shaw, Enola Holmes) and stepbrother Thomas (Jack Lowden, Mary, Queen of Scots) they were moving to Australia, she knows the timing is bad.  Things go from bad to worse when Ben is tragically killed in a freak accident and she winds up homeless and living with Margaret in the family estate, isolated from the outside world.

At first, Charlotte begrudgingly accepts Margaret’s hospitality.  Though the two women never saw eye to eye (and a hospital quarrel after Ben’s death rose to a shocking climax), they’ve agreed to let bygones be bygones for the sake of the baby.  Suffering from dizzy spells and health issues that can’t be fully diagnosed, Charlotte will stay with Margaret and Thomas until she’s well enough to begin her new life outside of the insular cottage-town she shared with her late lover.  Meanwhile, Margaret appears to have taken a decidedly keen interest in the welfare of Charlotte’s baby (naturally, it’s her only grandchild) and soon Charlotte realizes that she’s become a de facto prisoner of her almost mother-in-law and her strangely enigmatic stepson.  If Charlotte had politely tolerated Margaret before, she’d barely taken the time to glance at Thomas but now she’s forced into getting to know him as a way to protect herself from Margaret and, eventually, him.

Writer/director Joe Marcantonio and his co-writer Jason McColgan have given Kindred the gentlest of burns and the boil is slow to bubble.  When the heat does eventually rise, it has its spooky moments and that it derives its suspense from realism instead of mysticism helps the film hold together better in some of its shakier stretches.  I had a hard time believing the strong-willed Charlotte would have let these shenanigans go on for as long as she does but there’s a politeness she’s trying to master, especially after her earlier run-in with Margaret, that I could eventually go with it.  Things start to careen wildly near the end, unfortunately, and while I’m not giving any spoilers away I will say that I’m not so sure the writers came up with the most efficient way to end the film.  I’m betting there’s one or two alternate endings that show up on an eventual home release of the movie.

What keeps the movie ever watchable are the trio of performances with all three actors holding their cards so close to their chest they might as well have them sewn to their undershirts.  I thought Lawrance was a dynamic lead, an inspired choice maybe because it looks like early on she could escape at any point but by the time she does realize she’s trapped she’s in no physical condition to get away.  You’re invested in the character even before she gets ensconced in the mansion and that’s saying something.  Also serving as producer, Lowden takes what could have been purely creepy character and given him a dangerous allure that encourages you to let your guard down.  Both Lowden and Shaw are at the center of the film’s two best moments, largely uninterrupted monologues that reveal certain character business about each…excellent stuff.  Pay special attention to Shaw’s lengthy monologue about her son and a dog, it’s always fascinating to watch Shaw build a character and here you get to see her do it right in front of you with the tiniest of brilliant brush strokes.

Without many of the “loud” elements that give films similar to Kindred more jolts, I can imagine how the film might come off as a little staid for some.  I watched this one late at night and was impressed at how well it kept my attention even well into the midnight hour.  It’s measured in its energy, to be sure, and it gets increasingly standard the longer it goes, disappointingly so considering how good the first 50 minutes or are.  However, those three lead performances coupled with a plot grounded in some type of reality that makes what happens all the more unsettling help to make Kindred worth the labor pains you may feel at times getting through the more familiar-feeling passages.

Movie Review ~ Rent-A-Pal


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Lonely bachelor David discovers a strange VHS tape called Rent-A-Pal. Hosted by the charming and charismatic Andy, the tape offers him much-needed company and compassion. However, Andy’s friendship comes at a cost, and David desperately struggles to afford the price of admission.

Stars: Brian Landis Folkins, Wil Wheaton, Kathleen Brady, Amy Rutledge

Director: Jon Stevenson

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  In my mind, one of the more positive things to come out of 2020 is an interesting resurgence of 80s and 90s nostalgia that’s been brewing for some time.  The reboots of television shows and films have been streaming in over the last several years and fashion trends have been steadily regressing back to the bold looks popularized two or three decades ago.  It was truly in 2020 when I felt the pinnacle of the reminiscence to those older days happened with music industry titans The Weeknd, Dua Lipa, and Miley Cyrus all individually releasing albums with a distinct sound that screams of 80s synth and flavor.  It’s wonderful and I for one have loved seeing how artists of today across all mediums have reinvented the cultural touchstones of the past.

I think that’s a reason why Rent-A-Pal has such appeal, at least initially, because it taps directly into the memory sweet spot of the audience that its playing directly to.  This strange hybrid of horror/thriller/black comedy will by its very nature speak to a particular demographic and writer/director Jon Stevenson knows good and well how to snag their attention with the kind of retro calling cards that keep you visually interested even when the story begins to deflate as it careens toward a messy conclusion.  For everyone else that happens upon the film, it’s surely a case of ‘your mileage may vary’ due to an insular feeling giving off an impression if you aren’t familiar with this era you’re missing out on the majority of the point.

It’s hard to imagine now, but before all the dating apps were available, video dating services helped make love connections across the country via recorded VHS interviews. Lonesome David is hoping 1990 is the year he’ll meet his mate, though living in his elderly mother’s basement isn’t helping things.  Caring for his mom (Kathleen Brady) who suffers from dementia that leaves her brittle physically and emotionally, David (Brian Landis Folkins) is soft-spoken and the kind of guy you’d imagine would be fast-forwarded by women on the hunt for someone exciting.  While picking up his latest batch of hopeful matches, David spots a clearance VHS called Rent-A-Pal and, on a whim, decides to try it out.  Hosted by the effervescent Andy (Wil Wheaton), the tape seems to ask the right questions at the right time, interacting with David on a level that few have.  Andy wants to know an awful lot about David it turns out; his secrets, his most embarrassing moments, and much more all become topics of increasingly intense conversations.  When David eventually makes a match with the sweet and shy Lisa (Amy Rutledge, strong and surprising in what could have been a disposable role), he finds that he doesn’t need his old pal Andy quite as much and stops playing the VHS.  That’s when things get weird…and deadly.

For the most part, Rent-A-Pal is a fun examination of loneliness (yes, I know how that sounds) and Stevenson doesn’t pass up an opportunity to put David in awkward positions…sometimes literally.  His interactions with the outside world are often wince-inducing and the way he begins to let what appears to be a pre-taped VHS order him around are amusing in a macabre sort of way.  Folkins and Wheaton have a good rapport in these scenes, never letting the audience get too far ahead of things so they figure out what’s happening or putting the large puzzle pieces together.  Wheaton’s role can seem a tad one-note but there’s more to what he’s doing than appears on the surface, the same can be said for Folkins who could have easily made David a Norman Bates-ish silent rage machine but instead lets what’s brewing rise to the kind of boil that explodes when you are least prepared.

The film’s biggest flaw is that Rent-A-Pal is an 80-minute movie living in the shell of a film that runs a half hour longer.  That extra thirty minutes drags the film down in its most crucial moments, slowing things to a crawl right when the screws should be turning to amp up the pressure.  It all leads somewhere, sure, and to its credit the film finds its way to a satisfying finale but the road leading up there is an oddly unsatisfying and ultimately disappointing trip, especially considering that up until then things were humming along nicely.  Clearly made on a small budget, the production design can’t go full out with the retro design so the look of the movie feels like 1990 by way of a garage sale instead of a curated prop department, but extra points go back to everyone just for seeing oodles of VHS tapes on display.

Even putting the budget aside (because plenty of movies can still be worthwhile even if made for $2.95), with a few cuts, Rent-A-Pal would have been an overall tighter movie and the trims would have helped every other element that goes slack leading up to the home stretch.  Wheaton’s character would have had more unnerving menace, Folkins wouldn’t have had to stretch out his descent into frenzy quite so long, and the poor women of the picture (both are quite good, especially Brady in a difficult to cast role) might not have had to wait for their turn to get something to do.  Stevenson is absolutely someone to watch and so is the movie, but see if you can spot when you can FF.

Movie Review ~ Centigrade


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A married couple find themselves trapped in their frozen vehicle after a blizzard and struggle to survive amid plunging temperatures and unforeseen obstacles.

Stars: Genesis Rodriguez, Vincent Piazza, Mavis Simpson-Ernst

Director: Brendan Walsh

Rated: NR

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Some people say that it’s never as fun to watch suspense movies alone as it is to turn off all the lights and hunker down with another person.  I could go both ways with that.  If you’re watching with someone that can handle the scares and will go along for the ride, sure, that’s fun but if you’re in the presence of an unwilling participant that’s going to make light of the frights as a way to relieve their own fears, then you’re in for a long 90 minutes.  Then there are the thrillers that sort of demand you have another viewer with you so you can commiserate on the people in the film and that’s where it’s always handy to know who you’re watching with.

I had intended to watch Centigrade all by my lonesome because it looked to be the kind of chilly thriller fare my partner just doesn’t go for but he stuck around for the first few minutes of this based-on-true-life events and was intrigued enough to put his feet up and hang out for a while.  This was a good thing for two reasons.  The first is I was glad he was around so I could vent my frustration at the situation the lone couple featured in the film find themselves in and the second was that this turned out to be one of those interesting relationship-building movies where you find yourself asking how you’d react if you were in the same situation with your significant other.

After stopping in the middle of the night on the side of a mountain road due to bad weather conditions, pregnant writer Naomi (Genesis Rodriguez, Man on a Ledge) and her husband Matt (Vincent Piazza, Jersey Boys) awake to find the blizzard they were in has covered their vehicle with ice and snow, fully trapping them in their rental car.  In Norway to promote her book, no one knows precisely where they were on this leg of their trip and with no cell phone reception, they aren’t even sure how far they were from their hotel when they pulled over.  Reasonably consoloed someone will be coming by their frozen fortress soon, they wait.  And wait.  The waiting turns to panic as they realize they are entombed in ice on a desolate stretch of road and with limited supplies may not be rescued for days.

At first, the couple is observant of the needs of their spouse and tries their best to accommodate the little things that might annoy them otherwise in consideration of the situation.  The space they have to move around in is small, though, and before long paranoia creeps in and begins to unravel husband and wife as the days stretch on and all hope seems lost.  When they disagree on how to move forward and with Naomi’s pregnancy coming to the forefront of their worry, bold choices have to be made that could end up being the difference between a cold death in the elements if they break free or a slow decline in the car if they choose to stay where they are.  Staying in the car has created an igloo effect which is keeping them relatively secure but would breaking a window and chancing the urge to dig their way out help their overall odds?

I’d imagine watching Centigrade with your loved one might inspire some debate over who is the in the right as the film progresses.  I definitely found myself talking back to the screen more than I had at other films lately and found that I alternated sides with Matt and Naomi throughout…the more they came to loggerheads the deeper I tended to dig my heels in for either party.  That should say something for both the performances of Rodriguez and Piazza and the writing of director Brendan Walsh and Daley Nixon.  While I could see this being written off as a one-note slog that begins to swallow itself into wallow territory around the 60 minute mark, I found it oddly compelling viewing…even when my thoughts drifted to thinking about where all the #2’s were being put.

Neither actor is any kind of household name but they both have the kind of movie-star looks that keep them from truly portraying “real” people.  Piazza tends to fly fairly under the radar and some attempts by Walsh and Nixon to flesh out his backstory don’t pan out as intended but he has a good chemistry with Rodriguez.  For her part, Rodriguez is saddled with a strangely half-explored medication issue but still manages to keep the fires of interest burning when things start to get cold in the final stretch.  I wish there were a few more of the heated exchanges we get early on in the film between the two but the need to conserve energy realistically sadly outweighs the desire for more dramatic tension and the liveliness peters out to a few random blips as Walsh moves the film toward its predictable conclusion.

While it could have tightened up a bit more heading into its last act, Centigrade makes for a mostly taut 90 minutes that could also double as a bit of easy couples shout therapy.  At several points, I was thankful that Walsh and Nixon’s script was so sparse because it gave us a chance to discuss what we’d do in the same situation…and then argue with one another as to why the other person’s plan wouldn’t work.  Lack of propulsive drive forward may knock it down a few degrees, but Centigrade is still good for a few chills.

Movie Review ~ Sputnik


The Facts:

Synopsis: The lone survivor of an enigmatic spaceship incident hasn’t returned back home alone-hiding inside his body is a dangerous creature.

Stars: Oksana Akinshina, Fyodor Bondarchuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Anna Nazarova, Anton Vasilev, Aleksey Demidov, Vitaliya Korniyenko, Aleksandr Marushev, Albrecht Zander

Director: Egor Abramenko

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  It’s been surprising to me how much I’ve adjusted to seeing movies from the comfort of my own home these past several months.  For the most part, I’ve enjoyed moving from point A in my living room that serves as my office to point B in the same area which turns into my nightly space for screenings.  Sure, it’s taken just a tiny bit of the “event” feeling out of going to the movies but there hasn’t been anything I’ve seen so far that has truly cried out for the big screen experience.  Until now.

Watching the new Russian monster movie Sputnik, I felt the first honest pangs of nostalgia for being in a darkened movie theater staring up at a moving image.  This is the type of film that would have been a lot of fun to catch with an audience or even just flying solo as a weekday matinee to fill in some time between work and evening plans.  At the same time, what a thrill to find a movie so on the money when it comes to creative ideas and working wonders with overwrought plot mechanics; it’s arguably in the top tier of films I’ve seen in 2020 and easily a new genre favorite.

It’s 1983 and two Russian Cosmonauts are in orbit preparing to reenter Earth’s atmosphere, discussing plans for what they’ll do when they return home.  Kirill Averchenko (Aleksey Demidov) longs for a hot bath while Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov, The Darkest Hour) has more family-oriented matters to attend to.  All plans are put on hold, though, when their capsule has more than a close encounter with an…unplanned visitor.  Back on Earth, neurophysiologist Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina, The Bourne Supremacy) is facing sanctions for her unorthodox handling of a patient and the young doctors brash willingness to ignore authority catches the attention of Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk) who has an interesting proposition for her.

If Semiradov can smooth out Tatyana’s present troubles, would she be willing to consult on a new patient at a top secret, heavily guarded government facility?  Intrigued and seeing this as a quick solve to a annoying problem, Tatyana agrees to meet with the man Semiradov has been tasked with guarding: Cosmonaut Konstantin. Returning to Earth with little memory of what happened to him and his comrade, Tatyana dismisses his symptoms at first as a case of traumatic PTSD leading to temporary amnesia.  That is, until she witnesses first hand his rather large problem that only comes out at night…

I think I’ve been trained for so long to be let down by movies that have a tantalizing opening act that I was particularly on edge with Sputnik.  When would the other shoe drop, and how would screenwriters Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev make some silly error that betrayed the three dimensional characters that were so carefully etched early on?  Would director Egor Abramenko give in to the pressure to show off instead of draw the viewer in closer, making the experience less about craftsmanship than pure gimmickry?  That the movie showed some of its cards at the outset made me nervous, but it turned out to all be part of the scary plan Sputnik’s creators had in store for audiences.

Bound to be compared to Alien and justly earning the same echoes of praise, this is one impressive discovery that continued to hold surprises well into its final stretch.  That should be especially good news to those that want a little plot to go with their slimy guts and gore (which the film has buckets of, by the way) and the performances match the finely tuned suspense sequences.  As the chilly young doctor plagued by a past that has ties to her present situation, Akinshina is as compellingly watchable a lead as I’ve seen in this genre.  Bringing a Cold War steeliness to her early scenes and, in getting to know more about Konstantin, finding small ways of slowly letting her guard down, Akinshina carefully navigates a complex strong female character to make her as important as whatever gooey creature might be right around the corner.  Fyodorov is nicely balanced too, playing a man expecting to return home to a hero’s welcome only to be imprisoned without any explanation why and kept from his family to be used as an experiment.  The more he comes to realize his part, the more his allegiances change…but how much does he actually know to begin with?  Also serving as a producer of the scare pic, Bondarchuk makes for a nice human villain when the well-designed beast isn’t onscreen.

Good performances and script can’t save a movie alone and there’s obviously been some money spent on Sputnik because it looks and sounds excellent.  The cinematography by Maxim Zhukov is never too intrusive on the action but also doesn’t shy away from clever positions and tricks.  I was particularly drawn in by Oleg Karpachev’s ominous and haunting score which helps to set the mood…and then some.  Use of night vision and an abundance of 80s security video can be a little distracting at times but it keeps the mood of the piece just right and helps with that whole “less is more” feeling when showing the creature at the center of it all.

Had this opened in movie theaters, I still doubt it would have gotten as much attention as one of the proposed summer blockbusters or even a glazed over second tier release but it might have generated the kind of buzz that would have gotten it to audiences in select cities.  That could have kept word of mouth going and will, I think, benefit its streaming debut because now the news of it being one to watch can spread quicker.  It’s also worth noting this is arriving in the US via IFC films (IFC Midnight to be exact) and this is the third film this summer (after The Wretched and Relic) that has been a bona fide winner in my book.  The folks at IFC clearly know how to pick ‘em and Sputnik is their latest bullseye.

Movie Review ~ The Rental (2020)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Two couples on an oceanside getaway grow suspicious that the host of their seemingly perfect rental house may be spying on them. Before long, what should have been a celebratory weekend trip turns into something far more sinister.

Stars: Alison Brie, Dan Stevens, Jeremy Allen White, Sheila Vand, Toby Huss

Director: Dave Franco

Rated: R

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  I love to travel but I’m kinda weird about it.  Here’s the thing, when I go on vacation I want to feel like I’m away from home and want the place I stay to feel special and not like…well, my home.  That’s why I’ve always found the Airbnb craze to be a little whack-a-doo because who would want to stay in a person’s house (or even a place someone else decorated or, shudder, put their bare feet on the pillows?) when you could get pampered at a hotel for sometimes half the cost?  I know that for large parties it may work out better but there’s just something a little creepy to me about the entire set-up.  After watching The Rental, I’m even more convinced I’m right to be worried.

The first feature film directed by Dave Franco (The Disaster Artist), The Rental could have easily gone in another direction that was more cliché and expected and that would have been a gigantic and exasperating disappointment.  Thankfully, Dave seems to have learned from the strange misfires his older brother James made as both a director and star and kept his debut tight.  He also wisely hasn’t made it more difficult on himself by starring in the film as well but instead remains behind the camera as director and co-writer with indie favorite Joe Swanberg (You’re Next) who knows his way around these types of slow-dread genre films.  The result should have audiences ready to check-in and hunker down for a corker of a chiller.

Excited for a weekend away from their busy city lives, Charlie (Dan Stevens, Lucy in the Sky), his wife Michelle (Alison Brie, The Five-Year Engagement), his brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White, Viena and the Fantomes) and Josh’s girlfriend/Charlie’s business partner Mina (Sheila Vand, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) book a beach house in the woods that’s just secluded enough to help them unwind  and party without disruption.  Things get off to a jittery start when Mina, who is Middle Eastern, requests to book the house and is denied but Charlie, who is white, is accepted immediately.  Arriving to find the owner (Toby Huss, Halloween) affable at first but vague when questioned about the perceived racism in the booking snafu, the foursome shake off any lingering bad feelings and try to enjoy their first night at the spacious house.

The calm doesn’t last long though as a night of partying leads to the first of a number of secrets that are eventually exposed, along with a danger that none of them could have ever predicted.  Situations go from bad to worse when a split-second decision changes the course of their weekend plans from a fun retreat with family/friends to a downward spiral of mayhem.  As miscommunication, distrust, fear, and anger start to take hold of the group, what starts as a weekend to relax quickly devolves into a surprisingly effective fight for survival stemming from a mystery they are racing to unravel.  To reveal more would not be playing fair and Franco/Swanberg largely stick to realistic developments that rely on spur of the moment choices and their devastatingly quick consequences.

I was genuinely impressed with the acumen Franco shows for maneuvering his small troupe of actors around and the way he works with Swanberg to keep us on our toes throughout.  The twists and turns presented in The Rental are often unpredictable and you’ll lose valuable time the more you try to figure out what’s happening or where the action will go next.  Leaving little room for extra fat to weigh things down, the 80 or so minutes are free from the normal pitfalls of first time filmmaking, suggesting again that Franco has been paying attention when he’s been on sets these past years as an actor.

Frustrating though they all may be at times and not without blame for much of what happens during this weekend from hell, the characters are all appealing in some fashion.  I’m usually not a fan of Brie (Franco’s real life wife) but she’s quite fun here and despite a slow start where her character is a bit more passive than we’re used to seeing from Brie she revs up and gets a few good zingers in during the second half.  Every time Stevens pops up in a movie my partner notes that ever since he left Downton Abbey the actor seems totally averse to speaking in his native UK accent and here again he’s not wholly successful in showing off his elocution.  Stevens hasn’t quite found his footing, post-Downton and while he’s been well-reviewed in a number of films he continues to come up lacking for me…but in The Rental that cool from a distance feel actually works for his often compromised pseudo-nice guy.  As Charlie’s screw-up brother, White is fine in a role that gradually gets aggravating but it’s Vand’s commanding presence that is the real find here.  Taking the role as serious as it needs to be, Vand handles some character developments and choices that could be poison with an unusual amount of grace, keeping us oddly on her side.

Franco has said the idea for The Rental came from his caution about staying in an Airbnb property and his trepidation shows with an end product that’s drenched in paranoia.  Building to a sharp sting around the halfway mark before rising to a spine-tingling crescendo that’s sustained through the credits, The Rental is a four-star winner for the weary traveler wary of where they lay their head at night.

Movie Review ~ Relic

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A woman links her mother’s increasingly volatile behavior to an evil presence at their family’s decaying country home.

Stars: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote

Director: Natalie Erika James

Rated: R

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  If you look back over the history of the horror genre you see it developing with the time.  Early entries from the black and white era largely suggested danger without showing it, much like audiences were unsure what was really happening overseas in WWII.  As the counterculture was brought from the shadows to the mainstream in the late 60s and 70s, so too did the genre give way to boundary pushing fright cinema that stylishly developed a look all its own.  The 80s slasher craze and endless sequels/copycats went well with the mall obsessed teen moviegoers that loved to dress like their favorite celebrity.  When the hammer of reality came down in the 90s and 2000s, horror pivoted again with self-aware work that was as snarky as its target audience.

Over the past decade, we’ve seen another seismic shift in nightmare cinema, and it’s been a return to a desire for intelligent scares and less on quick terror.  Movie going isn’t cheap so audiences want to spend their money attending entertainment that is going to give them the best return on their investment…and they don’t want to be treated to another cookie cutter slasher film heavy on blood, guts, boobs, and butts.  Films like The Conjuring and Hereditary have left a lasting impression because they’ve scared the beejebus out of audiences but have more up their sleeves than just mere frights.

You can add the new Australian film Relic to that list of successful genre offerings too and even place it fairly high on the list.  With its small cast and confined setting, it works wonders with the limitations it places on itself and never lets the viewer get too far ahead of the characters experiencing some perplexing behavior of a loved one.  Working from her own script, Natalie Erika James directs the mostly three-person film with a sure hand and only rarely lets the standard tropes of horror films get in the way of the story she’s trying to tell.

Concerned for the well-being of her mother Edna who hasn’t been seen by her neighbors in several days, Kay (Emily Mortimer, Mary Poppins Returns) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote, The Neon Demon) drive up from Melbourne to Edna’s home in the woods.  Arriving to find Edna gone but evidence that she’s likely suffering from dementia, the two begin to search through the house for clues as to her whereabouts while joining with the locals to find their matriarch.  When Edna (Robyn Nevin) does eventually return in the middle of the night, something is off and while we get the impression she was never the warmest of maternal figures she has an especially sharp bite to her when provoked in the slightest.

Sticking around to ensure Edna is settled back in while also planning to move her into a facility that can care for her future needs, Kay begins to notice strange indicators around the house that something worse may have infiltrated the premises.  Edna’s increasingly detached behavior and wild mood swings wreak havoc on the relationship between her daughter and granddaughter, prompting both to dig further not just into Edna’s condition but into the house and surrounding woods which seems to hold more secrets the family will need to face together.  With Edna’s condition worsening rapidly and the unexplained incidents becoming more violent, the three women all face a challenging evening in a house that might have its own agenda.

It’s not hard to pick up the metaphor Relic is laying down but even if you do catch on what’s happening you’ll likely be thrown for a loop in the film’s final act which trades the quieter, slow burn moments of the previous 70 minutes for a genuinely worrisome finale.  It’s not just that James delivers some serious scary sequences and arresting visual imagery as the three women face some frightening happenings, but that all of it feels…personal.  Couple that with an unexpectedly moving (for a horror film) ending and you have a memorable and highly recommendable feature.

I can see why Relic wouldn’t quite land for everyone and it’s worth noting that much of the success of the film relies on our emotional connection to the characters and story.  If you’re the kind of person that doesn’t latch on like that, the movie may not hold the same lasting impact I felt.  It’s a tricky ending and it could have easily gone wrong, but I think it’s extraordinary.  For me, I thought about the movie and it’s bracing ending for days afterward and was impressed all over again at the delicacy with which James chose to end her film and the chutzpah it must have taken to do it herway.

Movie Review ~ The Wretched


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A defiant teenage boy, struggling with his parent’s imminent divorce, faces off with a thousand year-old witch, who is living beneath the skin of and posing as the woman next door.

Stars: John-Paul Howard, Piper Curda, Jamison Jones, Azie Tesfai, Zarah Mahler, Kevin Bigley

Director: Brett Pierce, Drew T. Pierce

Rated: NR

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  It was all the way back in 1991 when I was first introduced to the novels of Christopher Pike with the classic, Whisper of Death.  The pseudonym of Kevin Christopher McFadden, writing as Pike he gave teens a boatload of thrills tinged with some mature themes and I just couldn’t get enough of them.  Pike is going to have a bit of a resurgence now that it’s been announced super-hot director Mike Flanagan (Doctor Sleep) is adapting his novel The Midnight Club (and interweaving a few others) into a new series for Netflix.  I also couldn’t quite get Pike’s prose out of my mind while watching The Wretched, a new indie horror flick released on streaming that’s better than you think even if it plays like a really strong YA novel adaptation.

Sent to live with his dad in a sleepy resort town on the coast of Michigan for the summer after a bit of wild teenage fun got out of hand (and left him in a cast), Ben (John-Paul Howard, Hell or High Water) is all angst and over-it attitude.  However, he starts to come around when he is coaxed out of his shell by Mallory (Piper Curda), a co-worker at the marina his dad oversees.  The fun doesn’t last long, though, because Ben’s neighbors with two small children are starting to act funny…perhaps it’s because of the grotesque creature we saw crawl out of a deer carcass and hide in their basement or the strange markings on their front porch.  When their children vanish and no one claims to remember them, Ben becomes convinced something strange is happening…and it all seems to center on a tree in the woods that hides a terrifying creature.

There’s a lot of good stuff going on in The Wretched, starting with a spooky prologue set 35 years ago and writer/directors Brett and Drew Pierce keep things moving at a decent clip for the first hour or so.  While the territory is familiar with no one believing the already troubled teenager, there’s a particular comfort in watching it play out so by-the-numbers.  Maybe it’s because the cast is so benignly appealing and the production values are a step-up from the normal indie schlock-fest.  The make-up effects (by a dude named Erik Porn, no joke) are aces and much of the work is practical with CGI used sparingly, at least as far as I could tell.  Genre fans will have fun picking out the influences on hand, from Rear Window to Fright Night to Invasion of the Body Snatchers…heck, even to William Friedkin’s much maligned 1990 movie The Guardian…but instead of leaving feeling that the movie lifted the best bits I got the impression the filmmakers had a deep affinity for those movies they wanted to emulate and they succeed with that.

Where The Wretched gets into some trouble is not being able to connect the dots to its ideas at the end of the day.  Like that spooky prologue I mentioned before.  It sets a nice tone but unfortunately (and this isn’t a total spoiler) it doesn’t truly come back in a meaningful way later in the film.  Even the most strident of television movies would have at least find a way to bring that back but the Pierce brothers seem to have forgotten about furthering their mythology about whatever wicked presence has long been feeding in the area.  Also, I have to say the doozy of a ending didn’t work for me…like, at all.  It’s one of those rug-pulling twists that could have worked but it doesn’t have the logic (or running time) to back it up.

Even if it falters toward the end, I found The Wretched be a far above average entry in the genre film that pops up on my recommended list.  It’s scary but not aggressively so, one of those weeknight watches you won’t feel too bad about spending time with

Movie Review ~ Knives and Skin


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the wake of a high school student’s mysterious disappearance, a collective awakening seems to overcome the town’s teenage girls — gathering in force until it can no longer be contained.

Stars: Marika Engelhardt, Grace Smith, Ireon Roach, Kayla Carter, Tim Hopper, Kate Arrington, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith

Director: Jennifer Reeder

Rated: NR

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: As I approach a milestone birthday in 2020, I’m wondering if I’m starting to turn into a grumpy old man.  I see the signs all around me to suggest the transition is beginning.  I get annoyed when whippersnappers play their music too loud on the train, wondering at the same time what happened to good tunes.  No one has manners anymore, people leave their garbage anywhere they want and feel they are entitled to do what they want when they want to, regardless of anyone else in the room.  There’s no respect for authority or leadership.  Plus, I just really look forward to the bran muffin my work offers up every Friday.  I’m one cardigan and a couple of belt loops away from being ready to go ice fishing with Walter Matthau.

Reading the synopsis for Knives and Skin, I found a great deal of promise.  A modern noir mystery written and directed by feminist filmmaker Jennifer Reeder that would have its own voice could be just what this era of filmmaking needed.  A genre dominated by males and male-appealing storylines was due for a little shake-up, why not start at the indie roots and work our way up into the mainstream?  Sounds like a winner, right?  I thought so too but watching the film is a different experience entirely and this blossoming grumpy old man wasn’t having it.  Despite some intriguing interludes, a welcome all-inclusive vibe, and a keen visual eye, Reeder’s teen noir isn’t some revolutionary piece of cinema like I was hoping it would be.

Eschewing the hard-boiled grit of an East coast setting or the sinister sunny skies of the West coast scene, Knives and Skin centers on the residents of a small Midwestern township that could be called Anytown U.S.A.  It’s here that Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) goes missing after being left in the middle of nowhere by school crush Andy (Ty Olwin) when she rebuffs his advances.  Carolyn’s already slightly on the edge mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), teeters further on the brink when her daughter vanishes, resorting to wearing her clothes to feel closer to her child.  Her friends think she’ll show up soon and aren’t too worried, though.

Lisa’s also the music teacher at the town’s high school and Reeder has stuffed the gymatorioum full of hyped up, highly emotional teens that struggle with the disappearance of a classmate at the same time their hormones are raging at a fever pitch.  Juggling these kids as well as a healthy stable of adults showing up as predatory teachers and troubled parents presents the viewer with a lot of plotlines and perverse people to keep track of.  While the town goes about their business, Reeder also presents Carolyn (or Carolyn’s lifeless body) to us at several points, blurring the lines of reality further so we aren’t sure if this is meant to be real, taken as a dream of the filmmaker, the dream of a character, or merely symbolic of something else entirely.

Bravo to a few performers here, namely Engelhardt, who are asked to go above and beyond for their performance.  Most of the actors are entirely forgettable, hindered by clumsy, babbling brook-ish dialogue and some truly heinous line deliveries but there are several standouts.  As an avant-garde student that catches the eye of a popular football star, Ireon Roach is the most interesting one of the lot and I longed to see her in a remake of Pretty in Pink, which is kinda the point Reeder is making.  The parents/adults are the true duds here, each performing like this is their big Hollywood break.  Every emotion is huge, each word of dialogue is barked out with eyes bulged to the back of the theater.

I’d read some critics kindly compare this film to the work of David Lynch and more power to them.  I found this to be an extremely unpleasant movie on the whole, even considering there are some strong performances and there’s true technique involved in the production design and cinematography.  It’s fine to create a work that has some characters audiences are repelled by but Reeder has found a way to make almost every person that shows up on screen so obnoxious and repulsive in their own way that for the first time in a long while I almost gave up on this entirely.  If there’s truly one thing that saves the film from being a total waste, is Reeder’s inclusion of several ‘80s tunes sung by the school choir or as musical interludes, artfully edited.  They’re hopelessly emo but well performed and they stuck with me much more than any one person did.

There’s clearly a strong voice in Reeder and I’m going to keep my eye on what the filmmaker does in the future – I’m hoping there’s more focus into the plot (oh, you forgot this was a mystery, didn’t you?  So did I at times) and less on exposing the sordid side of a small town.  What Reeder uncovers here isn’t anything new or exciting, nor is her delivery as audacious as it could have been.  It’s less knives on skin and more nails on a chalkboard.

 

31 Days to Scare ~ The Autopsy of Jane Doe

The Facts:

Synopsis: A father and son, both coroners, are pulled into a complex mystery while attempting to identify the body of a young woman, who was apparently harboring dark secrets.

Stars: Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch, Ophelia Lovibond, Olwen Catherine Kelly, Michael McElhatton, Jane Perry

Director: André Øvredal

Rated: R

Running Length: 86 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Based on the recommendation of a trusted source, I fired up The Autopsy of Jane Doe a while back on a cold evening when I had the apartment to myself. I turned off all the lights and settled in to see if the good buzz from my friend was real. 86 minutes later the lights had been turned on (and stayed on for the better part of the night) and my nerves were downright rattled. A rare jewel in a sometimes-tarnished crown of low-budget horror films, The Autopsy of Jane Doe has some smarts behind it, not to mention a fair share of goosebump-inducing passages.

Proving once again why you should just close up shop when the day is done, a father-son set of coroners answer a late-night call from the police to start an autopsy of a young woman found buried in a neighboring town. Though she’s been hidden in the dirt for an indeterminate amount of time, her alabaster skin doesn’t show any decay nor is there any sign of immediate trauma. As the two men work into the night in their shadowy underground funeral home, they begin to believe not only that there’s spooky forces at play surrounding Jane Doe…but that the body might not be dead enough for burial just yet.

As the family members plunged into a frightful night of terror, Brian Cox (Pixels) and Emile Hirsch (Lone Survivor) play well off each other, mostly because they treat the material with the right amount of growing warines. The father is more trusting of history and science while the son is willing to suspend his disbelief and consider that what’s happening to this body can’t be explained away by documented medical cases. Writers Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing’s plot will keep you guessing and their script is aided by André Øvredal’s measured direction. Special mention must be made to the actress playing Jane Doe (Olwen Kelly) who has to do a helluva lot lying full naked on a cold metal slab.

The final 1/3 of the movie is loads of fun with many developments happening in quick succession. You’ll never get too far ahead of the characters, thereby enjoying each twist as it develops in front of you. There’s a fair amount of autopsy gore but the other violence is handled with just the right quantity of blood and guts. I hesitate to call the film classy because then we get into a different type of horror film that this one just doesn’t have any aspiration to be. It knows what it is and is highly effective in its mission to freak you out. Watch it alone if you must but try and rope a friend in to share the love.

Movie Review ~ The Babadook

babadook_ver4

The Facts:

Synopsis: A single mother, plagued by the violent death of her husband, battles with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house, but soon discovers a sinister presence all around her.

Stars: Essie Davis, Daniel Henshall, Noah Wiseman,Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West, Ben Winspear

Director: Jennifer Kent

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I’d like to let you in on a little secret the marketing team for The Babadook probably doesn’t want you to know: it’s not an Insidious/Sinister/The Conjuring-like scare fest that derives its shocks and jolts from loud music stings and icky ghouls that peek out from under the bed.

That’s not to say The Babadook doesn’t have a treasure trove worth of frights at the ready for audiences but to truly feel the effect of director Jennifer Kent’s slow burn horror film you need to be patient, listen, and invest yourself in the characters and situations presented to you.

Drawing parallels between unexpressed grief and horror manifested as a boogey-man type specter, Kent’s tale unspools at its own pace, thankfully taking the time to introduce us to the mother and son that are haunted by a malevolent force inside their creaky old manse.  Still grieving the loss of her husband killed the day their son was born, Amelia (Essie Davis) is barely keeping it together between her demanding job as a caregiver and fulfilling her motherly duties to her troubled son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman).

Plagued by night terrors, Samuel acts out at school and when he’s removed from class it’s not long before mother and son find themselves cooped up in their house with little to keep them company but television and bedtime stories.  Pulling a new book from the shelf, Amelia reads the tale of The Babadook, a menacing creature with a presence that is seemingly inescapable.  When the book and its titular character start to take on a life of its own, Amelia and Samuel face their fears as the lines between reality and fiction become ever harder to decipher.

There’s some marvelously rewarding sequences here, whether you are a horror aficionado or a scaredy-cat that burrows under the covers when the scares get too overwhelming.  Kent wisely keeps the performances small while showing how many dark corners this house has for evil to lurk.  Bolstered by a creepy performance from Wiseman and a heroically tremendous one from Davis, the film has more intensely dramatic scenes than it does outright terror (fear not you scare hounds, several deviously executed bits will provide you with your goosebump quota for 2014 and 2015),  providing the kind of balance that many similar films struggle to find.

Watching this film at home, I can imagine the experience to be slightly different in a movie theater seeing that you always have the safety of your home to retreat to.  Since The Babadook is all about the fear that you may just be manifesting on our own, conjuring those images while in a space you consider safe may not be the wisest choice either if you have any hope of getting a decent night’s rest.

Worthy of the good buzz and accolades it’s receiving, The Babadook is a smart, skilled film that heralds the arrival of a significant writer-director in Kent.  Seek it out, but beware that you may not be able to get rid of The Babadook once you’ve let it in.