Movie Review ~ Knock at the Cabin

The Facts:

Synopsis: While vacationing at a remote cabin, a family of three is suddenly held hostage by four strangers who demand they sacrifice one of their own to avert the apocalypse.
Stars: Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Kristen Cui, Abby Quinn, Rupert Grint
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Rated: R
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  There comes the point in every film from director M. Night Shyamalan where the director has laid his proverbial cards out on the table, and the audience has to choose. Do they forge ahead on the path laid out by Shyamalan (sometimes inelegantly), or do they reject it outright and spend the remainder wishing they’d opted for the rom-com in the next theater? With the once-hot director staging an intriguing comeback since 2015’s The Visit, more often than not, the viewer is more interested to see how things will turn out. (As opposed to a film like 2008’s The Happening when no one minded who wound up breathing by the time the credits rolled.)

After tripping a bit with 2019’s Glass and then literally wading into full-on silly waters with 2021’s Old, Shyamalan has taken a page from his successful Apple TV+ show Servant and delivered a compelling, tension-filled, one-setting thriller to kick off 2023. Adapted from Paul Tremblay’s frightening 2018 bestseller ‘The Cabin at the End of the World,’ Shyamalan has wisely retitled the film Knock at the Cabin (once you see it, you’ll know why) and tweaked the original screenplay drafted by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman which had bounced around unproduced for several years. The effect is 100 minutes of entertainment that reminds you how well Shyamalan can fiddle with our nerves using more than mere visual cues.

Wasting little time diving into the action, audiences find themselves in the woods near a remote cabin watching Wen (newcomer Kristen Cui in a knockout performance) collect grasshoppers. At the same time, her two dads relax on the back porch. The tranquility of her playtime is interrupted by Leonard (Dave Bautista, My Spy), a hulking figure emerging from nowhere that strikes up a conversation with the young girl. Our red alert is going off hardcore that Leonard is no good, but his easy-going charm works on Wen…for a while. When his three companions arrive with crudely assembled “tools,” the idle chatter turns ominous.

It’s here when things get a little dicey to talk about. If you’ve seen the preview or read any synopsis, it’s no spoiler to share that Leonard, Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird, Persuasion), Adriane (Abby Quinn, Torn Hearts), and Redmond (Rupert Grint, Thunderpants) hold the family captive. Eric (Jonathan Groff, Frozen) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge, Spoiler Alert) are then told they have to make an impossible decision for the rest of the world to continue. I won’t talk about the potential consequences of their unwillingness to participate as requested or if what the four outsiders are preaching is gospel. 

Interjected throughout are bits of the couple’s backstory before and after they adopted Wen, glimpses into their life that helps inform the second half of the film. The inclusion of these scenes may seem inconsequential at the time, but it’s another way Shyamalan uses his talents of emotional connection to round out his characters. Few writers/directors know how to do this as well, and in the midst of Shyamalan’s weird spinning out in his post-Signs era, audiences and critics alike failed to remember this overall strength.

One of Shyamalan’s best-cast films in ages, Knock at the Cabin, made me believe in the power of Bautista again after briefly being derailed by his shenanigans with the Guardians of the Galaxy films. His lead character has complexities that add unexpected dramatic weight. Also strong are Amuka-Bird and Quinn as ordinary people doing what they believe to be right and willing to take extreme action (in every sense of the word) to ensure what needs to happen happens. Groff makes inward gains in his work on creating three-dimensional characters that resemble real people, an area he’s struggled with. He’s helped along the way by Aldridge, who has to juggle more of the skeptical side of the coin, which is never easy. The weakest showing is Grint, the one member of the Harry Potter trio who can’t seem to find his niche outside of Hogwarts.

While intelligent for the most part, Knock at the Cabin isn’t above asking its characters to make a few head-shaking, eye-rolling maneuvers, i.e., why don’t people just shoot their attacker immediately? Thankfully, with a spooky score from Herdís Stefánsdóttir and moody camera work from cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (The Northman), Knock at the Cabin can maintain its tone right up until its finale. It’s one of the few Shyamalan films with a perfect ending, too. With its high-stakes, high-tension set-up, I don’t think I could revisit this Cabin soon, but this initial watch was worth the dark trip.

Movie Review ~ Nanny

The Facts:

Synopsis: Immigrant nanny Aisha, piecing together a new life in New York City while caring for the child of an Upper East Side family, is forced to confront a concealed truth that threatens to shatter her precarious American Dream.
Stars: Anna Diop, Michelle Monaghan, Sinqua Walls, Morgan Spector, Rose Decker, Leslie Uggams
Director: Nikyatu Jusu
Rated: R
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  On the surface, Nikyatu Jusu’s thriller Nanny feels like it could be a tight twist on the mid-late ‘90s cycle of yuppie thrillers that put families in a particular income bracket in peril a la The Hand that Rocks the Cradle.  Aligning it with those agreeable (and quite entertaining, if I do say so) popcorn chompers would be selling Jusu’s film short, though, because Nanny is more emotionally complex and resonant.  Leaving you alarmingly chilled rather than terrifically thrilled, there’s a more important lesson to be learned from this modern metropolitan horror tale.

Senegalese immigrant Aisha (Anna Diop, Us) is just starting work for Amy (Michelle Monaghan, Pixels) and Adam (Morgan Spector, With/in) as a nanny for Rose (Rose Decker) in their nicely appointed Upper East Side apartment as the film opens.  As is often the case, Adam is the more hands-off parent, while Amy is the helicopter mom who confuses the smothering of her daughter with genuine love and care.  Amy’s more concerned with how her family looks to the outside world, the appearance of perfection is the ultimate goal.  Aisha picks up on that and does what she can to stay within the boundaries of her employer’s strict rules.  However, she’s also a mother with a son back home.  Most of her wages go toward a ticket to bring the two back together.

As the work demands increase, so does the stress of the job.  Though a new romantic relationship is prosperous, it re-introduces her to traditions and age-old spiritual tales that begin to haunt her.  This leads Aisha down a path of nightmares involving her son that start crossing into reality.  The hallucinations become outright fear when she loses contact with her child and cannot find out where he is.  Where is her son, and how does Rose appear to know him and pin Aisha’s increasingly strange behavior on him?

Nanny belongs to star Diop, a commanding presence that keeps you hooked on each development and left turn the film takes.  While you may begin to suspect where Jusu is guiding the thriller and arrive at the final destination long before Aisha does, Diop’s strong performance rises above Nanny’s sub-par structure, fortifying it into something more nuanced and intriguing.  Monaghan and Spector are solid too, and it helps that the script doesn’t pander to making them the expected NYC snobs we expect.  They’re snobs alright, but their angle has a tweaked edge to it.

Movie Review ~ Decision to Leave

The Facts:

Synopsis: A businessman plummets to his death from a mountain peak in South Korea. Did he jump, or was he pushed? When detective Hae-joon arrives on the scene, he begins to suspect the dead man’s wife, Seo-rae, may know more than she initially lets on.
Stars: Tang Wei, Park Hae-il
Director: Park Chan-wook
Rated: R
Running Length: 138 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review:  While I take my role as a critic seriously, I pride myself on not being too much of a creaky contrarian who deliberately goes against the majority vote. I’ll let you in on another little secret of this inner world of reviewing movies: it can make for a chilly time on the playground if you are a voice of dissent for a film that’s soared to popularity among the masses. While writing this blog, I’ve experienced that frost a few times, but I’m usually the one who likes the movies everyone wants to toss in the bin, so it’s not so bad. As we make our way to the end of 2022, there’s a much-lauded title I’ve put off discussing that needs to be addressed so I can close the book on it. 

The film is the South Korean mystery Decision to Leave by celebrated director Park Chan-wook, who will forever be linked to the brutal brilliance of Oldboy and, more recently, the striking beauty of The Handmaiden. Decision to Leave won the directing prize at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and is already favored as the frontrunner for Best International Feature at the Oscars, with Park Chan-wook also high on the list to receive his first nomination for Best Director. With all that buzz coming out of Cannes and many good reviews laid down as a golden carpet, why wouldn’t I sit down to this expecting it to knock my socks off?

The thing is, it didn’t. And it’s not just due to overhype or ‘festival fever’ that can affect movies seen by a limited number of reviewers that get their hooks into one film and proclaim it the next big thing. No, for me, Decision to Leave was a miss in the narrative storytelling Park Chan-wook has excelled at in the past. Never known for completely linear storytelling, the director employs some of those same time jolts here. Still, it’s to the detriment and forward motion of his overly serpentine mystery and characters that should be far more intriguing than they ever are. The moment they start to show subterfuge, Park Chan-wook jostles us again somehow, and the snow globe-fragile structure of the piece has to find time to settle.

Detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is stretched thin between commuting to work and rarely seeing his wife due to their competing schedules. Any time they get to work on their relationship is put to the side when Hae-joon takes on a case of suspicious death where the wife of a retired immigration officer becomes the main suspect. The man is found dead at the bottom of a mountain, which could be a mere accident, but as Hae-joon and his partner Soo-Wan (Go Kyung-Pyo) dig deeper under the surface, they discover widow Seo Rae (Tang Wei) may have committed the perfect crime. How to prove it, though? And did the deceased have it coming to him?

The basic outline I’m giving you is a tiny tip of an iceberg plot that viewers will crash into repeatedly before the film lumbers to its conclusion after nearly two and a half hours. Admittedly, the plot developments have a Hitchcock flair, but they come at a hefty price: time. Hitchcock knew how to keep the viewer engaged, and I kept getting further detached from every character the filmmakers wanted us to be more interested in. Despite some inarguably breathtaking work by Tang Wei as a possible femme fatale that houses a multitude of oceanic currents under her calm demeanor, I struggled to find a reason to care much about anything.

In many ways, the same negatives that weighed down Christopher Nolan’s 2020 Tenet sank Decision to Leave. Both arrive from directors that have delivered some unforgettable films in the past but have let their love of the process overtake their understanding of the viewer’s experience. I didn’t just find Decision to Leave slack. I found it hard to track. No, I don’t need my hand held, but I need to understand what I’m supposed to be looking for in the first place. 

31 Days to Scare ~ Eye of the Cat (1969)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A man and his girlfriend plan to rob the mansion of the man’s eccentric but wealthy aunt. However, the aunt keeps dozens of cats in her home, and the man is deathly afraid of cats.
Stars: Michael Sarrazin, Gayle Hunnicutt, Eleanor Parker, Tim Henry, Laurence Naismith
Director: David Lowell Rich
Rated: NR
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  The one thing I don’t do nearly enough of every year for this series is travel back to a time when they truly cranked out horror films. Twenty days in, I often find myself scrambling for titles that I haven’t covered (or want to cover) but then realize that I haven’t even crept up to the edge of the bountiful time when Hollywood leaned into the growing craze for double-bill entertainment and drive-in fare. In truth, most of these are often bland carbon copies of each other, with the studios doing what they still do today: finding a hook that works and continuing to let it wriggle out money until it’s dead. Every so often, a fabulous find like Eye of the Cat slinks into your lap, renewing your commitment to exploring each cobwebbed corner of the horror film vault.

A Universal Studios production, this comes with some prestige to it. Written by Joseph Stefano, the screenwriter of Psycho (1960) and starring Eleanor Parker (the Baroness in The Sound of Music), Eye of the Cat was directed by David Lowell Rich. Rich was the director of the TV movie 1964’s See How They Run (the first movie produced for the medium), which gave network executives the blueprint for the made-for-television film. He was also behind the camera for the popular Lana Turner movie Madame X in 1966. Nabbing hot new stars Michael Sarrazin (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? also arrived in 1969) and Gayle Hunnicutt (appearing in Marlowe the same year) was another win.

So, with all of these factors in its favor, why is Eye of the Cat not that well known? While it has gone on to become a modest cult hit with its strong devotees, it retains its share of detractors for having some semblance of a trashy vibe. I think it’s a hot-wired thriller laced with campy melodrama that bogs it down at critical moments. With all that on the table, the premise is so good and the execution so delightfully “studio” that it’s a must-see in my book.

Parker (Home for the Holidays) plays a wealthy woman living in San Francisco dying of emphysema. (You’ll hear about how the disease has taken 2/3 of her lung tissue several dozen times throughout.)  Charged with the care of her two young nephews after their parents died, only Luke (Tim Henry) remains with her as a grown adult. It’s Wylie (Sarrazin, The Seduction) that Aunt Danny worries about and longs to have back in her life, though, and ever since he left, she has found comfort in a menagerie of cats that has taken Wylie’s place in her heart…and her will. She’s shared all this information with Kassia (Hunnicut), the beautician she visits regularly and has recently had a severe health emergency in the presence of. 

With her client declining rapidly due to the illness, Kassia sets into motion a plan long in development. She’s located Wylie and entices him to return to his aunt’s well-appointed mansion and again get back in her good graces. After he returns to the will, Kassia will kill her and take a cut of the inheritance Wylie stands to receive. There’s just one tiny issue Kassia failed to tell Wylie about. The cats. A childhood trauma at his aunt’s has left him paralyzed with a fear of cats, and he can’t complete his task or compete with the felines until they are out of the way. An old wife’s tale says a cat will always come back, but when a cat knows it isn’t wanted and that someone plans to hurt its owner, it will return…with plans of its own.

From its opening moments featuring a cat prowling around the city, first as a stylized overlay and then the real thing (the main cat is a mischievous-looking orange tabby), Eye of the Cat is a spooky movie that rarely pumps the brakes. Like Stefano’s script for Psycho, it bears down on the audience and doesn’t give much explanation or set-up. It would be best if you got on board, kept up, or were left in the dust. The film’s beginning feels disjointed because Stefano and Rich drop you right into the action without much establishment of whom we’re watching; it’s only later that gaps are filled in. There’s also some disappointing sag in the middle of the film when Wylie and Kassia go out for a night at a swinging ’60s head club which ends with girls in very short mini skirts rolling around fighting/hair-pulling. If you’re watching the movie, fast-forward past this part because it adds nothing but extra time to the film.

Instead, focus on the great work Parker is doing. It could have been easy for Parker to take a Joan Crawford-sized bite out of the role (and Crawford would have been a more obvious choice while giving a less interesting performance). Still, she shows a restraint that favors heightened suspicion over nagging paranoia and growing fear rather than over-the-top terror regarding the people in her house trying to do her in. There’s a marvelous bit where Parker is in a wheelchair, perched precariously at the top of an infamous San Francisco hill and struggling to keep from falling backward. A cat is sauntering up from behind her, and her nephew is coming toward her, and we aren’t sure who means her more harm…and neither is she. Brilliant.

The supporting players are also strong, with Hunnicut being a swell femme fatale that might be playing both brothers against each other but is absolutely hiding something from Wylie. I’ve always found Sarrazin to be an appealing actor but never someone to actively root for. He’s a bit insufferable by design here, but the extra layer of subterfuge he’s pulling makes the character even harder to stomach. I hadn’t seen (or remembered) Henry before, but he’s a handsome leading man, and you feel bad Parker’s character ignores him as she does. However, perhaps she knows something we don’t. There is the suggestion of some impropriety between aunt and nephew, but this was 1969, and a hint is all we get.

The finale of Eye of the Cat was nicely built up and so extreme that when it was aired on network TV, the studio had to refilm the ending to be “less intense.” It’s pretty tense but not as nail-biting as it sounds nor as perfectly satisfying as it could be. I would be interested to see if they remade this today, even as a short in a longer anthology. Eye of the Cat would work nicely as a 45–50-minute chapter of something more gothic and centered around San Francisco’s impressive architecture. Featuring a lush, spine-tingling score by Lalo Schifrin (Tales of Halloween), Eye of the Cat was a pleasant surprise and a title I’d share with friends interested in something different than the same old Halloween rotation of movies.

31 Days to Scare ~ Windows (1980)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A shy woman and her police protector are watched by her admirer, a weird woman with a telescope.
Stars: Talia Shire, Elizabeth Ashley, Joe Cortese, Kay Medford, Michael Gorrin, Russell Horton, Michael Lipton, Ron Ryan, Linda Gillin, Tony DiBenedetto, Rick Petrucelli
Director: Gordon Willis
Rated: R
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Over time, plenty of films earned their reputations for being critically reviled and justified box office bombs. Even the benefit of time and a new critical analysis can’t save hopeless movies like 1964’s The Creeping Terror, 1979’s Caligula, 1987’s Leonard Part 6, or 2003’s Gigli, but it has happened for others. Movies now considered classics like Psycho (1960) originally received a chilly reception in their write-ups, and there’s even an example from 1980, the year Windows was released. Released ten months after Windows opened and closed quickly was The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel that first got mixed notices but has become a cult, and now mainstream, genre classic.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say Windows has been wholly vindicated over the past 40 years, nor was its initial demise without some reasonable defense. Arriving in an era when homophobia was rampant in the public sphere and discrimination essentially went unchecked, its lesbian villain is problematic. In much the same way Basic Instinct would come under fire a decade later, the onscreen representation left much to be desired. Yet to reduce the film to merely that is shortchanging some top-of-the-line filmmaking and terrific performances centered around a story that was likely ahead of its time. That Windows was unwilling to push its subtext further made it seem weak, and that it introduced its subtext at all was its first “mistake” in the eyes of the public.

It’s impossible to discuss Windows without giving away a few high-level plot points that may be considered spoiler-y (even if the poster gives one away already). If you want to go in completely unaware of what’s going on in Barry Siegel’s screenplay, bookmark this review and come back later. 

On reflection, the opening shot of Windows has multiple meanings on more than a strictly visual level, and it’s a credit to director Gordon Willis that he lingers on it long enough for it to stick in your mind. Willis was the longtime cinematographer of Woody Allen, creating the fantastic views of New York in Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979), not to mention his stunning work in all three films in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy. Windows was his only foray into directing, and that’s a shame. Perhaps it was because the film was so poorly received, or he could have preferred the singular role behind the camera, but pulling double duty here showed that he could easily do both.

After this first memorable shot, the movie turns ugly quickly. A timid woman named Emily (Talia Shire, Prophecy) comes home late from work and is violently assaulted in her home. Her attacker records this encounter while holding a knife to her throat, instructing her along the way and threatening harm if she disobeys. While the violence here and throughout Windows is not graphically shown (i.e., no blood is seen), this scene is incredibly visceral and stomach-churning to watch. Shire’s character, who we learn later is working on controlling a stutter, is rendered nearly speechless, and we’re holding our breath for her.

The next day, the police question Emily when her neighbor Andrea (Elizabeth Ashley, Coma) stops to see what’s happening. We get the sense she’s taken a motherly interest in Emily, but this is an incident newly divorced Emily must deal with alone. Deciding quickly that she needs to move to a more safe building, Emily secures a new high-rise apartment and moves out within days. Surprising even himself, the detective assigned to her case (Joe Cortese, Green Book) falls for Emily, and soon they are hanging out and getting to know one another over dinner and old movies. 

What Emily doesn’t know, and what we find out before the first thirty minutes is over, is that Andrea has developed a fixation on Emily and hired the man to attack her. She paid him to record the violence and listens to Emily’s fear as a way of fantasizing about being with her. Once Emily moves, Andrea also finds a loft nearby and trains a telescope to peer into her former neighbor’s new apartment, where she spies on Emily with the detective. As her obsession grows, so does her boldness in keeping Emily for herself and isolating her from anyone that may keep them apart. 

Movies like Single White Female and Fatal Attraction learned a thing or two from Windows; that’s obvious. As flawed as the film can be, and it is broken in places, it’s a fascinating watch once you get past its deeply uncomfortable opening. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen the LGBTQ+ population portrayed so much worse in the years since (ouch, but true) that it doesn’t come across as repellant as it did in 1980, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. It helps that the cinematography from Willis draws you in and keeps you fixed from edge to edge with beautiful views of the city and NYC skyline that aren’t there anymore. His use of shadow and light is unparalleled, especially as Windows approaches the soft landing finale, which is all about moving in and out of dark places.

If not for anything else, watch the movie for the performances of Shire and especially Ashley. Shire has always been an underrated actress, strongly showing in supporting roles for her brother (The Godfather films) and Sylvester Stallone (the Rocky films), but she rarely got a chance to lead pictures. The work here speaks for itself and proves she can hold her own confidently starring in a film. I’d argue that Ashley performs better but only because it has to go deeper into the layers of deception, doubly hiding who she is. First downplaying her lesbianism, then her obsession with Emily. Her acceptance of both proves a breaking point, and that’s when the danger begins. I almost wish the film allowed her to go further because it’s the holding back at times that makes the movie, and character, seem milder than they are at their core. Ashely was rewarded for all this with a nomination at The Golden Raspberry Awards, celebrating the “worst of cinematic under-achievements”…blech. It’s a bonkers, but equally unforgettable performance.

I can only recommend Windows to you based on my experience of hearing all the negative things said about it and then viewing it myself. And I liked it. As a gay man, I always have my antennae up for inadequate representation and don’t mind dinging movies/directors/actors for it. Making a gay person a villain isn’t reductive, and I find it offensive that movies like Windows are dismissed because it does. Numerous films have had this same set-up with male-female relationships, and no one has done a double-take. It’s time to take the kid gloves off and accept movies like this, including the evil deeds people can do, regardless of whom you share your bed with.

31 Days to Scare ~ Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A night at the movies turns into a nightmare when Michael and his date are attacked by a hoard of bloodthirsty zombies – only a “Thriller” can save them now.

Stars: Michael Jackson, Ola Ray, Vincent Price

Director: John Landis

Rated: PG

Running Length: 13 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: To celebrate the 35 year anniversary of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the folks over at IMAX did a pretty cool thing and re-released it in theaters for one week. Showing before The House with a Clock in Its Walls and looking scary good enhanced by 3D, it only hammered home again what a landmark achievement this was in the still-growing music video scene. All these years later, it stands as a high-water mark for the medium and is a pretty creepy mixture of horror and music.

Directed by John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) who had shown an eye for horror and comedy, there’s a sizable portion of this without any music at all and it opens with Michael Jackson and his girlfriend Ola Ray running into car trouble in the woods. Aping I Was a Teenage Werewolf from 1957, Michael changes into a beast and just before he nabs his prey we see that we’re actually watching a movie…that’s also being watched by Jackson and Ray. The meta-ness of it all aside, Ray can’t take the scares and hightails it out of the theater. Reluctantly, Jackson follows her and that’s when Thriller takes control. As they walk home Jackson’s killer vocals and unimpeachable dancing give way to an ever expanding smorgasbord of all manners of ghouls and zombies that come out to play…and dance. It all culminates around the 8:25 mark when Jackson finds himself possessed by the dead. Will Ray be able to get away or will she succumb to the creatures of the night?

I can’t tell you what a joy it was to see this projected on the huge IMAX screen in 3D. It looked like a million bucks and by the time we get to the legendary dance break I had goosebumps all over. It’s such a masterful mix of music and story tightly packaged into 13 minutes. While this was only in theaters for a week, maybe we’ll all get lucky and they’ll bring it back around Halloween – it’s worth seeing whatever movie it is paired with.  Even if you can’t see it in a theater, watch it again above and relive how good this is!