Movie Review ~ The Dark and the Wicked

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: When adult siblings Louise and Michael return to the farm where they grew up to say goodbye to their dying father and comfort their distressed mother, they soon find themselves overwhelmed by waking nightmares and an unstoppable evil that threatens to consume them all.

Stars: Marin Ireland, Michael Abbott Jr., Xander Berkeley, Lynn Andrews, Julie Oliver-Touchstone

Director: Brian Bertino

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Now that we’re in November and I’ve made it through October’s 31 Days to Scare, where I bombarded myself with numerous scare titles throughout the course of the month (numbering more than 31 I should add), I had a realization.  There’s a simplicity in the best scary movies that no loud music stings, gory displays of bloodletting, or cats thrown in front of the camera to make you leap back in your seat can match.  Not every filmmaker has that kind of restraint to resist the urge to go for that easy out.  So whether it be an antsy studio worried their target audience won’t be satisfied or a director that gives into their commercial side of the brain, I started to notice how many films wind up on this path…especially the thrown cats.

It’s been twelve years, but I think my nerves still haven’t quite recovered from seeing The Strangers, director Brian Bertino’s 2008 debut feature, so I was prepared for the same kind of spine-jangling experience with his fourth film, The Dark and the Wicked.  Bertino is a filmmaker that takes his time between films and doesn’t seem to be driven or tempted by the financial side of the business.  In all honesty, I haven’t seen the two films he’s made since The Strangers but get the impression they follow the same efficient tactics he employed in his first film.  Watching his new offering as part of The 56th Chicago International Film Festival, I tried to recreate that experience from home by checking it out late at night with all the lights off.  While it has the requisite scares that admirably often emanate not from something leaping out but just quietly appearing in the frame, if you sweep all that away there’s not a whole lot left for the film to offer viewers seeking more than a quick thrill.

Not that Bertino and his cast don’t give it a helluva good college try.  I almost instantly regretted starting it so late and considered turning a small light on thanks to a prologue that opens in a workroom adjacent to an isolated farmhouse where a woman (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) works mending clothes late at night.  What’s scary about that, you may ask?  Well, all the mannequins, of course.  A disturbance among her farm animals is the first sign to us of imminent danger but is gradually revealed as an evil presence that has set up residence on the property, preying on her and her invalid husband.

The arrival of the couple’s two grown children should alleviate some of this burden but both bring their own baggage along.  Louise (Marin Ireland, The Irishman) is single and without much in her life, a never-worn wedding dress still sitting half-completed in her mother’s workshop.  Leaving his wife and two young daughters at their home a far distance away, Michael (Michael Abbott Jr., The Death of Dick Long) has returned after a long absence to confront some guilt he’s pushed down for not being there to help in the care of his sick parent.  These emotions play a part in the overall horrors that unfold over the time the family spends together, with late night happenings turning from frightening to tragic.

Bertino keeps up a good sense of dread, at least for a while.  Yet it becomes repetitive and stagnant quicker than I had hoped.  Despite a rather unsettling visit from a preacher man (Xander Berkeley, The Wall of Mexico) their agnostic mother had supposedly found comfort in, the cycle of nightly spooky sights runs out of steam.  In films like this that depend on engagement, once the mind starts to wonder what the point of all this intense terror is for, you know something is amiss.  Also, the whole fractured family trope with grown children returning home to find one or more of their parents “not quite right” feels stale and the cracks show in Bertino’s script, though the performances try to keep it fresh.

I tried to like The Dark and the Wicked, actively tried, but the longer it kept establishing and re-establishing the broken relationships and continued in its bleak journey toward nowhere, the less I was interested in the destination.  In his past films, Bertino has been more comfortable in a certain inevitability with his characters but here he doesn’t seem totally able to decide if he wants to relinquish their fates with as much of a clear cut message. That leaves them and the viewer in a strange, uncomfortable place…and not in a good way.

**Note: A shorter version of this review appeared in my coverage of The 56th Chicago International Film Festival**

Movie Review ~ The Wall of Mexico


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A wealthy Mexican-American family decides to build a wall around their ranch to stop townspeople from stealing their well water, which is rumored to have unusual properties.

Stars: Esai Morales, Mariel Hemingway, Jackson Rathbone, Alex Meneses, Carmela Zumbado, Marisol Sacramento, Xander Berkeley, Moises Arias

Director: Zachary Cotler & Magdalena Zyzak

Rated: NR

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I’ve mentioned it here before but I think it’s worth repeating here: at film festivals, it pays to have good time management skills.  That’s really the only way you’re going to maximize your full potential of seeing as much as you can in the often short time frame that is allotted for screenings.  Apart from choosing your films carefully, you need to make sure you’re also selecting the right films at the correct time of day so your energy is matched with what you’re seeing.  It doesn’t always work as well as it should when you factor in availability and sheer unavoidable bouts of fatigue but when everything lines up you’re in for a gold star viewing experience.

At the 2019 Twin Cities Film Fest, I was having trouble making my schedule work and finding that I had a gap of time that went unaccounted for.  Then I realized that if I moved a few things around, I could start earlier in the day and add another film to my list, which is how The Wall of Mexico began as a simple gap filler but wound up being one of the more interesting and intriguing films I saw. Remember, this was back in October 2019 when all we had to worry about, pre-COVID, fiery protests, and the upcoming election were the harsh regulations being imposed against immigrations into the US.  So a movie with a title like The Wall of Mexico was bound to pique some interest at the outset and the good news is that writer/co-director Zachary Cotler rewards those who take the leap into the mysterious lives of the Arista family with a mostly unpredictable parable.

In an unnamed town running along the California border to Mexico, the Mexican-American Arista family lives an enviable life of privilege.  As the head of the family, Henry (Esai Morales) has provided well for his two daughters Tania (Marisol Sacramento) and Ximena (Carmela Zumbado, Need for Speed) who spend days lounging by the pool soaking up the sun and nights with a select group who party until they pass out.  Into this tranquil existence comes Tom (Jackson Rathbone, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2), hired to work as a groundskeeper under the tutelage of Michael (Xander Berkeley, Candyman), the Aristas long-standing employee.  It isn’t long before Tom falls under the spell of the beautiful Tania and his crush on her doesn’t seem to surprise anyone, even when it strays into possibly dangerous territory.

If that were the crux of the story, Colter and his co-director Magdalena Zyzak might have had a fine if standard, film exploring the class differences between Tom and Tania but there’s something more on the agenda.  On the Arista property is a well, which seems to hold some sort of secret for the family in addition to serving as a frenzied curiosity for the townspeople that want to know what’s being kept hidden from them.  When the water level in the well begins to lower dramatically and it becomes evident someone is stealing the limited supply, Tom is assigned to help Michael build a wall around the Arista estate during the day and watch over the tank as an overnight watchman to catch the culprit.  As you can imagine, formally being walled out of something creates an even bigger uproar from the rabidly curious and increasingly irate townfolk, leading to a showdown with the town officials (led by Mariel Hemmingway in a brief cameo) and an eventual standoff.

With a run time of nearly two hours, Colter and Zyzak can’t quite sustain the energy or keep up the interest they’ve laid out for the entirety of the film but for a while there The Wall of Mexico gets a nice buzz going as you try to figure out, along with Tom, what’s truly going on.  Is the Arista well some sort of fountain of youth, aiding the Arista clan in their success, longevity, and glamorous looks? Or is it simply water and a valuable resource they choose to keep for themselves, which they have every right to do.  The questions are interesting and the answers feel resolved long before the movie wraps up

It’s good, then, that the cast is so worth watching and brings something more to the script than what was on the page, and that goes for everyone on screen from top to bottom.  Usually, the characters that enter a world foreign to them can be the dullest ones in the bunch but Rathbone finds some good moments throughout that feel special, giving the audience someone they can feel some kind of small relation to.  There’s also a bit of a kinship to Morales as the father just doing right for his family and protecting what he’s worked hard to cultivate.  A hard-working character actor for years, Berkeley is solid as always.  Playing the two wild daughters that take great joy in manipulating the men they love and loathe in their lives, Zumbado and Sacramento are of particular note because they seem to hold the greatest air of mystery for the longest amount of time.

While it’s not the politically timed piece it appears to be at first, there are so many underlying currents flowing through The Wall of Mexico and its left to the viewer to draw their own parallels between the events in the news and what transpires on the Arista estate.  Colter has crafted a neat little parable that reflects on our culture and today’s entitled society, it’s often right on the money and I’d imagine it’s a more uncomfortable watch now than it was when I first saw it nearly a year ago.

31 Days to Scare ~ Candyman

The Facts:

Synopsis: The Candyman, a murderous soul with a hook for a hand, is accidentally summoned to reality by a skeptic grad student researching the monster’s myth.

Stars: Virginia Madsen, Tony Todd, Xander Berkeley, Kasi Lemmons, Vanessa Williams, Bernard Rose, Michael Culkin

Director: Bernard Rose

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Growing up, I watched many horror movies and usually found them more funny than actually scary. Most of the films I saw had a heightened sense of reality so you could always tell they were operating in the confines of a fantasy world and not based in reality. It was easy to disassociate with the blood and gore because you would see the edges of the make-up applied or would jokingly feel that the characters got what was coming to them for going camping in the woods where a madman was rumored to be lurking.

Then there are movies like Candyman.

As a teen, I remember seeing this some weeknight with my dad at the Mall of America (RIP General Cinema!) and not really knowing what to expect. Yikes, I was in for a shocking treat. Based on Clive Barker’s short story (which I read a few years ago and found quite spellbinding) and adapted by director Bernard Rose who changes the action from the UK’s rundown council house neighborhood to Chicago’s inner city slum, Candyman has had a lasting impression on me throughout the years. How can a movie I’ve seen at least a dozen times still make me keep a light on at night, still send a chill up my spine, still make me dread certain passages?

Grad student Helen Lyle (Virgina Madsen, Joy, an inspring choice) is doing a study on modern urban legends with her colleague Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons, The Silence of the Lambs). While interviewing subjects they hear the tale of an invisible killer with a grotesque hook for a hand now said to haunt Chicago’s famed Cabrini Green housing project. Dubbed Candyman over time by the superstitious locals, Helen and Bernadette investigate the claims in an effort to support their thesis. The deeper into the mythology of Candyman (Tony Todd) Helen goes, the greater the danger as her cavalier skepticism rouses the fabled slayer to show up and make an example out of her.

From the very first shot in the title sequence set to a creepy as hell music box score from Phillip Glass, your spidey senses should be tingling. Rose isn’t interested in bringing forth a supernatural creature that can’t be identified but in presenting the myth of a dangerous figure than manifests itself in reality. On more than one occasion it’s suggested the residents of Cabrini Green are harboring this creature or attributing other crimes to him as a way to ward off urban sprawl and keep people away.

The film takes its time to get to the madness and when it does it unleashes some fairly grotesque imagery and copious amount of blood. It all seems just a hair above slasher film territory but it’s interested in being more classy than truly exploitative. When bodies start to turn up and a baby goes missing, Helen herself is implicated as a possible killer and must track down the heart of the legend to clear her name and save an innocent life. The finale is a bold move by the filmmakers, even if they pander to the audience with a gruesome (if satisfying) epilogue.

You have a lot of options for scary movies around Halloween and Candyman might already be on your watchlist. If it isn’t, consider replacing one of the more obvious choices (Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street) and check out this modern horror classic. It’s followed by two sequels, with only the first (Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh) of possible interest if you liked this one.