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.

Movie Review ~ Greta

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young woman befriends a lonely widow who’s harboring a dark and deadly agenda towards her.

Stars: Isabelle Huppert, Chloë Grace Moretz, Maika Monroe, Colm Feore, Stephen Rea

Director: Neil Jordan

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  In my mid-teens, I used to love the made-for-TV movies that aired on the USA Television Network.  Remember those?  The modest thrillers featured an array of crazies (mothers, nannies, children, stalkers, stepfathers, etc) preying upon naïve chumps that were easily tricked and overpowered.  They were soapy, syrupy, and an absolute delight to devour on their own or in a weekend marathon where they would all start to blend together by the time Sunday night rolled around.  Watching the entertaining new thriller Greta, I found myself riding a wave of nostalgia because you don’t have to squint too hard to see that for all its handsome production values and A-list leads it’s just a gussied up made for cable movie.

Still grieving the loss of her mother, recent NYC transplant Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz, Suspiria) hopes living in a new city with her college friend Erica (Maika Monroe, The 5th Wave) will help her move on.  Though she’s from Boston, Frances displays some downright Midwestern morals when she finds a purse left behind on the subway and returns it to Greta (Isabelle Huppert, Dead Man Down).  The lonely woman takes a liking to Frances and the two form a friendship that seemingly fills a void present in both of their lives.  Greta’s daughter doesn’t live close and Frances begins to enjoy spending time with the soft-spoken older woman.  That all changes when Frances discovers a secret about Greta that sets into motion a series of events revealing Greta’s true nature.

To say more about the second and third acts of Greta would be to give away some of the twists screenwriter Ray Wright and director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, In Dreams) have waiting for audiences, most of which are telegraphed well in advance.  The film is exactly what you think it’s going to be and doesn’t stray too far from the path.  Usually, I’d huff and puff about this lack of originality but the way Greta unfolds is so nicely handled by Jordan and his actors that I found myself quite enjoying just going along for the intriguing ride.

The performances are actually the most surprising thing the movie has to offer.  It’s a great benefit that Jordan has Huppert in the title role because she brings her inherent oddity to the forefront and makes it her weapon to keep us on our toes.  We know from moment one there’s something off about her (and it seems like Frances does too) but Huppert’s sad eyes and wan smile nicely hide the rage boiling underneath her porcelain surface.  When she feels rejected by Frances she lashes out in unexpected ways, which creates an air of uncomfortable unpredictability and that’s a space Huppert seems to revel working in.

I often struggle with Moretz as an actress but her turn here feels like one of the most fully formed characters she’s tackled.  Frances has some emotional trauma that hasn’t healed and she can’t totally forgive her father (Colm Feore, The Prodigy) who appears to have moved on with his life.  Moretz wades through some of the heaviness in Wright’s script and brings forth a lonely girl in a big city that feels familiar and relatable.  We understand why she might eschew a night out drinking at a club with her party girl trust fund roommate for a quiet dinner with the widowed Greta.  And we also see why Greta’s betrayal of trust hurts her so much.

The slow boil of the first 45 minutes gives way to an increasingly hard to swallow turn of events that don’t always jibe from scene to scene.  At one point Moretz is kicking down a door with her bare foot and in the next shot she’s unable to break a window.  A character is introduced late in the proceedings for no good reason other than to up the danger ante for Frances and satisfy some unspoken violence quota.  And for a movie set in the modern day it mystifies me that Greta’s place of residence is so hard to find one character goes on what is essentially a needle in a haystack search instead of firing up Google Maps.

Jordan is a curious filmmaker with a resume that covers many genres.  He hasn’t had an outright thriller in a while but he wades into the waters quite well with interesting camera set-ups and pacing that keeps things moving along without accumulating much drag.  There are several suspenseful sequences staged with people in peril from dangers just outside the frame and it creates the desired tension.  For those that like blunt edges, there’s a bit of gore that shocks with glee.

Now that the Oscars have been given out and everyone has patted themselves on the back, it’s time to get back to business.  We made it through a particular rough January (Serenity – yikes!) and a February that saw some modest, but not huge, hits (Alita: Battle Angel, What Men Want) and before you knew it, March is upon us.  With a host of anticipated movies set for release in March, Greta is being released in a narrow window before the blockbusters arrive.  It may be getting a release without much fanfare but it’s a better film than it’s modest roll-out would have you believe. With noted caveats aside, this one is worth catching in theaters.

31 Days to Scare ~ In Dreams

The Facts:

Synopsis: A suburban housewife learns that she has psychic connections to a serial killer, and can predict this person’s motives through her dreams.

Stars: Annette Bening, Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea, Robert Downey Jr., Paul Guilfoyle, Margo Martindale

Director: Neil Jordan

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I wanted to say right off the bat that I’m giving In Dreams a higher score than it probably deserves…or even has rightly earned despite some good intentions. While the overall movie feels like a bit of a clunker by the time is gets to its overblown third act, leading up to it there are some interesting ideas and certainly some intriguing performances.

Based on the novel Doll’s Eyes by Bari Wood (but supposedly wildly different in plot) this one comes to us via Neil Jordan, the writer/director of The Crying Game and screenwriter Bruce Robinson (Jennifer 8). Jordan takes a page from his cult favorite The Company of Wolves and frames In Dreams as part fairy tale, part horror show. Starting strong with visuals of a town that was flooded to make way for a reservoir that’s now the dumping ground for a psychotic killer, Jordan spends the first 45 minutes slowly building the tension but loses his grip when the line between dreams and reality get too blurred.

In the same year she’d go on to receive an Oscar nomination for American Beauty, Annette Bening (Girl Most Likely) is kinda a mess as a wife and mother who discovers she has a psychic link to the person that’s been abducting little girls and leaving their bodies underwater. Bening has grown into such a dependable presence on screen, especially in these last 10 years, but In Dreams was released when she hadn’t quite found her zone yet. She’s either cool and collected, purring her lines to her befuddled husband (Aidan Quinn, Blink) and skeptical shrink (Stephen Rea who should never, ever, attempt the New Yahk accent he tries out here) or she’s totally unhinged, laugh-crying her way through Robinson and Jordan’s chuckle inducing dialogue.

Her performance isn’t even the most bizarre one on display. No, that would be Robert Downey Jr. (The Judge) as the serial killer toying with Bening and her family. With his hair dyed red and peering at us from behind green contacts, Downey Jr. nails the creepy part of his role but can’t make head or tails of what else he should be doing. This was long before Downey Jr. had his Marvel renaissance and the actor seems fairly adrift here.

There’s some decent atmosphere created, scenes shot in the town underwater and a sinister apple orchard are nice showcases for Darius Khondji’s (Magic in the Moonlight) cinematography and Bening’s visions are nicely done. There’s even an ominous staging of Snow White in the forest starring the actress playing Bening’s daughter and about a three dozen other cherubs. It all adds up to a movie that looks great and has some spooky moments but one that eventually makes absolutely no sense at all…especially a poorly thought out finale that feels like it was reshot late in the game. In reality, In Dreams is a bust but there’s so many good people involved it’s worth watching at least once.