The Sonata


Candlelight can be romantic – or terrifying.

(2018) Horror (Screen Media) Freya Tingley, Simon Abkarian, James Faulkner, Rutger Hauer, Catherine Schaub-Abkarian, Matt Barber, Christopher Brand, James Kermack, Myster Jo, Aurélija Pronina, Andrejs Zikovs, Maija Cipste, Artürs Ghoss, Laine Ligere Stegrévica, Janis Libietis, Jurijs Krüze, Atis Afréds Brasmanis, Olga Svecova, Aleksandrs Mihailovs, Alina Vasiljeva. Directed by Andrew Desmond

Music has an almost mystical hold on our imaginations. We define ourselves by it, link it to memories both dark and lovely, use it to buoy our spirits or help us carry out repetitive or boring tasks. We arrange ourselves into tribes according to the kind of music we like. Music is essential to who we are.

Rose Fisher (Tingley) is a concert violinist who may have a brilliant career ahead of her. She has yet to achieve her full potential which has led to a rift between her and her manager Charles (Abkarian), who is a recovering alcoholic. When the news that Rose’s estranged father has died, she fields the news with the same frosty demeanor that you’d adopt if you were told that you’re short change for the bus.

Charles is surprised to discover that Rose’s pa is none other than Richard Marlowe (Hauer), once a composer who was poised to remake classical music with his brilliant compositions – until he essentially withdrew from public life to a run-down French chateau. His name had sunk into obscurity – those who even knew who he was had assumed he had been dead for years. However, Marlowe had been busy in the last years of his life, creating a violin sonata that apparently was written with Rose in mind and might be his most brilliant work yet.

He also left Rose the aforementioned chateau with the obligatory nosy housekeeper (Schaub-Abkarian) which Rose doesn’t really want; she is much more interested in selling the Gothic abomination. However, when she discovers the new sonata, she also discovers a mystery; the sonata is dotted with strange symbols and appears only half-completed. As Rose looks into the piece, she discovers to her dismay that the symbols are Satanic in origin and as she begins to have horrific nightmares and unexplained occurrences make her waking hours no picnic either, she realizes that dear old dad had a much more sinister purpose with his piece than just tormenting his daughter with it.

The chateau makes for an excellent supernatural horror film setting, with plenty of sinister cherubic statues, appropriately foggy woods, and dark corners for apparitions to leap out of. Desmond gives us a concept that has all sorts of fascinating connotations; using music as a conduit to other realms. It makes sense if you understand how a really great musician is transported when in the midst of playing, and transports us along with them. There is power in that, a kind of power that sadly goes largely unexplored here.

Tingley, best known for TV series Hemlock Grove and Once Upon a Time, isn’t given a whole lot to work with. Rose is at various turns arrogant, cold, obsessive and vulnerable. She’s not really a damsel in distress, but she’s not really a terribly strong woman either. When we first meet her, she is informed of her father’s death and has a reaction that is guaranteed to be the very opposite of endearing. To make matters worse, Tingley gives us a rather stiff performance, making me theorize that she was uncomfortable with the role. That’s just conjecture, of course.

This is one of the great Rutger Hauer’s final performances and it is a brief one; he mostly appears in brief snatches – pointing to the woods, glimpsed in mirrors and around corners, and has no dialogue other than during a vintage interview. It really is rather a waste because he has more presence than anyone else in the film. I wish the filmmakers had utilized him better.

A film about music needs a good score and fortunately this film has one. Composer Alexis Mangaud makes a suitably creepy tone but also makes the music lovely for the most part – some of it is atonal and dissonant but by the film’s end it’s hard not to be mesmerized by the music, even if you’re not a classical music aficionado.

The film suffers from some rookie mistakes; an over-reliance on jump scares, plot points that lead nowhere, and generally unlikable characters who have little depth to them. Still, there’s enough here to make this a fairly solid horror opus perfect for rainy nights, autumn afternoons as the sun is dying in the sky, or just to creep you out when you’re alone in the house. Sometimes, that’s all a movie really needs to be.

REASONS TO SEE: A truly fascinating idea.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tingley gives a fairly stiff performance.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some unsettling adult themes, gruesome images, terror, profanity, and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Desmond’s feature film debut; it is also the second-to-last film from the late Rutger Hauer to see the light of day (there’s one more coming out later this year).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rosemary’s Baby
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Papillon (2018)

Overlord (2018)


War is literally hell.

(2018) Horror (Paramount) Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Olivier, Pilou Asbæk, John Magaro, Iain de Caestecker, Jacob Anderson, Dominic Applewhite, Glanny Taufer, Joseph Quin, Bokeem Woodbine, Erich Redman, Mark McKenna, Hayley Carmichael, Marc Rissmann, Meg Foster, Sarah Finigan, Gunther Wurger, Bart Lambert, Michael Epp, Alison Thea-Skot. Directed by Julius Avery

 

War is hell, but some wars are more hellish than others. The evil that was Nazi Germany makes for fertile ground for all sorts of horrors, both real and imagined.

The 101st Airborne Division parachutes into occupied France in preparation for D-Day. Their mission is to take out a radio tower that will mess up Nazi communications and help the Allies when the troops hit the beach. The survivors of the drop have to find their way to the church upon which the tower sits. They are led by Corporal Ford (Russell), who inherited the job when everyone above him in rank bought the farm during the drop, and Private Boyce (Adepo), a young naive recruit seeing his first action of the war. They are aided by scavenger Chloe (Olivier) who leads them to the village where the church is.

Unfortunately for the good guys, the church is also a place where the Nazis are conducting unspeakable medical experiments, trying to create super-soldiers for their thousand-year Reich, and they are succeeding in their attempts. It will be up to the Americans to not only take out the tower but the research facility if the Allies are to have any hope of winning the war.

This film moves in fits and starts, with some sequences of almost impossible intensity (like the opening when paratroopers desperately leap out of a shot-up, crashing plane through flames and gunfire) while other sequences allow the audience to catch their breath. The filmmakers opted for practical effects over CGI in most cases and that serves the movie well.

However when we finally get to the super-soldiers, they are a bit on the disappointing side. They are very much “been there seen that.” The mainly little-known cast also doesn’t particularly distinguish themselves (Adepo and Russell are exceptions, and Asbæk does make a mighty hissable villain) and the plot at times feels like we’ve seen it all before.

Nonetheless the movie is a ride indeed, and those who like rides are going to enjoy this one. There is a ton of gore and the really squeamish might feel their gorge rise a bit, but the viscera never overwhelms the viewer. This makes for some great popcorn viewing, whether at Halloween time or whenever you’re in the mood for a fun romp through monster-infested Nazi Germany.

REASONS TO SEE: Very much a roller coaster ride.
REASONS TO AVOID: The monsters are underwhelming.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of strong bloody violence throughout, a fair amount of profanity, some disturbing images and brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rumors to the contrary, this film is not a part of the Cloverfield universe.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frankenstein’s Army
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
White Boy Rick

Rabid (2019)


She’s got a bit of an overbite.

(2019) Horror (Shout! FactoryLaura Vandervoort, Benjamin Hollingsworth, Ted Atherton, Hanneke Talbot, Stephen Huszar, Mackenzie Gray, Stephen McHattie, Kevin Hanchard, Heidi von Palleske, Joel Labelle, C.M. Punk, Edie Inksetter, Tristan Risk, Sylvia Soska, Jen Soska, Vanessa Jackson, Joe Bostick, Troy James, Greg Bryk, A.J. Mendez, Dion Karas, Amanda Zhou. Directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska

 

The Soska sisters are a pair of Canadian identical twins who have turned into promising horror directors. Their latest, a remake of an early classic by their countryman David Cronenberg, walks a fine line between modernizing a classic and overpraising it.

Rose (Vandervoort) is a mousy wannabe fashion designer who works for the insufferable Euro-trash designer Gunter (Gray) who regularly bullies her. Her BFF Chelsea (Talbot) convinces her to come to the company party that night where hottie photographer Brad (Hollingsworth) flirts with her. When she discovers that Chelsea put him up to it, Rose storms out of the party, gets on her scooter and promptly gets into a horrific accident.

With part of her intestine missing and her face marred by a ghastly mutilation, she is certain her career is over. However, Dr. Burroughs (Atherton) proposes a radical new treatment – stem cell manipulation – that will restore her beauty and repair her injuries. It sounds too good to be true but what does she have to lose?

The treatment goes better than she would dare hope. Dr. Burroughs’ promises are kept and more; when Rose gets back to work, she does so with new-found confidence that impresses Gunter to the point that he invites her to work on his new collection. She’s living the dream now.

But not so much since it turns out there are side effects. You see, Rose has a massive craving for blood and a weird appendage growing out of her armpit. And it turns out that Rose is now carrying a kind of super-rabies that is spreading throughout the city. Living the dream has turned into a living nightmare.

This is a fairly faithful remake of the original which is best-known for being porn star Marilyn Chambers’ first legitimate screen role. There is a smattering of social satire here that is welcome and a few in-jokes; early on, an employee of Gunter’s wonders about his new line “Why are we remaking old trends?” The level of self-awareness in the film is clever and subtle.

Unfortunately, a lot of good ideas here go undeveloped and the Sisters – whose earlier films didn’t shy away from the gore, certainly seem to be a bit tamer here. There are a few gruesome scenes – the injuries to Rose’s face, as depicted above, among them – but for the most part, there is a curious lack of over-the-top gore which might have benefitted the film.

A little judicious editing might have always helped. The movie is 20 minutes longer than the original and feels long; by the time the movie reaches its denouement it feels more like a marathon than a sprint. A good horror film requires brevity. There’s none of that here.

Vandervoort, best known for her time on Smallville, does a fairly decent job although quite frankly when compared with Chambers that’s not a high bar to reach for. She shows some nice horror chops here and although I don’t think that a further career as a scream queen is necessarily in the cards for her but if she chose to go that route I think she could make some real inroads.

I had high hopes for this one given the pedigree of the Soska sisters and the original material so I was mildly disappointed. It’s still worth seeing, particularly if you’re into body manipulation horror, but this is far from essential. Still, I do believe the Soska sisters are on the verge of becoming big players in the horror genre.

REASONS TO SEE: Occasionally delves into social satire which it does with welcome subtlety.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is extreme and often horrific violence, disturbing images, drug use, sexuality and nudity not to mention plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Paul Lalonde is best known for his work o the Left Behind film franchise. This is his first non-faith-based film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/21/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews: Metacritic: 41/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: World War Z
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
And Two If By Sea

In the Tall Grass


The tall grass can hide almost anything.

(2019) Horror (NetflixPatrick Wilson, Harrison Gilbertson, Will Buie, Jr., Laysla De Olveira, Avery Whitted, Rachel Wilson, Tiffany Helm. Directed by Vincenzo Natali

 

In the endless prairie, the grass can grow higher than, as the song goes, an elephant’s eye. There is something idyllic about tall waving grass on a sweet summer day. The tall grass can hide all manner of things, whether it be children playing hide and seek, couples coupling or something far more sinister.

From Stephen King and his chip-off-the-old-block-of-radioactive-meteorite-that-turns-people-into-killer-mutants son Joe Hill comes hits made-for-Netflix terror opus (which kicked off four straight weeks of original horror movies released each Friday in October). Siblings Cal (Whitted) and his very pregnant sister Becky (De Olveira) pull over to the side of a country road on the way to California (why don’t people ever stick to the interstate in horror movies?) so that she can wrestle with a bout of morning sickness. That’s when they hear a child’s voice calling for help. He can communicate with them, moaning that he’s been lost in the grass for days. Against their better judgment, the two siblings go in – and promptly get lost themselves.

While there they run into Tobin (Buie), the lost kid and eventually his parents the high-strung Ross (P. Wilson) and Natalie (R. Wilson). They also eventually run into Travis (Gilbertson), Becky’s baby daddy whom Cal absolutely loathes and who followed them when they missed a meeting with the prospective adoptive parents of her unborn child. As it turns out, time doesn’t work the same way in the tall grass. And it shifts in physical space as well. Except, as Tobin notes, “it doesn’t move dead things” and soon enough, there are plenty of those about as well.

From simple concepts comes better horror; King has understood this throughout his amazing career and the concept here is fairly simple, although the “rules” of the tall grass tend to get a bit obfuscated the longer the film goes. The first third of the movie however is deliciously creepy and veteran horror director Natali (Cube, Splice) keeps the suspense taut until near the end where things fall apart a bit.

There is some nifty CGI grass effects and less-nifty CGI blood effects and at the center of it all is a stone monolith – isn’t that always the case – that is a MacGuffin that never gets fully explained but then again doesn’t really need it. The film might have benefitted by less connection to the main characters – a sense that this thing has been there a really long time doesn’t really exist, and maybe evidence of pioneers and Native Americans who also found themselves wandering endlessly in the tall grass might have given the film a bit more grounding. However, this is a solid if unspectacular adaptation of the Master’s material and certainly a worthy addition to anyone’s spooky playlist whether at Halloween or just in the mood for a little fear fare.

REASONS TO SEE: Reasonably suspenseful throughout. Some pretty cool CGI grass effects.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses steam about half way through the movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, disturbing images, situations of terror and some brief sexual violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Patrick and Rachel Wilson, who play husband and wife in the film, have the same last name although they are not related.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/18/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews: Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Children of the Corn
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Rabid (2019)

Frankenstein (1931)


One of the most iconic images in horror movie history.

(1931) Horror (UniversalColin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clark, John Boles, Edward Van Sloan, Frederick Kerr, Dwight Frye, Lionel Belmore, Marilyn Harris, Francis Ford, Michael Mark, Mae Bruce, Jack Curtis, Paul Panzer, William Dyer, Cecil Reynolds, Cecilia Parker, Ellinor Vanderveer, Soledad Jiménez, Mary Gordon, Carmencita Johnson, Pauline Moore, Arletta Duncan. Directed by James Whale

Perhaps the most iconic horror film of all time is James Whale’s 1931 version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (the latter of whom is listed in the credit as “Mrs. Percy B. Shelley” – ah, misogyny). It is in many ways the perfect storm of Gothic imagery, gruesome subtexts, pathos, terror and a truly mind-blowing performance by Boris Karloff as the monster.

Most everyone knows the story, or at least bits of it; medical student Henry Frankenstein (Clive) who was renamed from Victor in the book and most subsequent films, is obsessed with the big questions of life; why does one child turn out to be the pillar of the community, the other a criminal? Where does life begin? Can a man bring life to the lifeless?

To discover the latter, he and his faithful servant Fritz (Frye) – renamed Igor in most subsequent productions – dig up bodies for their parts to create a perfect being. Utilizing a violent thunderstorm, lightning strikes buffet his creation until, as Frankenstein notably exclaims, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”

However, Frankenstein eventually has cause to regret his experiment as he loses control of the monster which goes on a murderous rampage, not always out of malice (in a particularly famous scene he inadvertently drowns a little girl while throwing flowers into a lake).

Many of the tropes that have characterized horror films in the 88 years since this movie was made originated or was refined here; the angry mob with torches and pitchforks, the sweet maiden menaced by an ugly monster, the imposing castle, the thunderstorm, the grunting of the inarticulate monster and so much more.

Karloff’s sad eyes and stiff gait made the monster so memorable that it was called thenceforth Frankenstein, even though the monster is never given a name in the film. Karloff, to that point a journeyman actor who generally played the heavy in B movies, would go on to a lucrative and acclaimed career as one of the greatest horror specialists of all time. Frankenstein is so iconic that many identify the genre with this movie; often the scowling visage as the monster is used to represent the genre.

While the scares are tame by modern standards, I think the film holds up extraordinarily well even today. This is how horror films were done before excessive gore was used as a crutch by many filmmakers in the genre; Whale knew just about how much to leave to the imagination and our imaginations are often more gruesome than reality. I think that these days, it gets lost in the shuffle a little bit but if you haven’t seen it – or haven’t seen it in a while – you owe it to yourself to watch it once again or for the first time.

REASONS TO SEE: A classic in every sense of the word. Karloff’s performance is a career maker. Still pretty scary even now. Still the best adaptation of the iconic Mary Shelley tale. The standard by which other horror movies are judged.
REASONS TO AVOID: Quite tame by modern standards.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scary images and child peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The monster isn’t seen until 30 minutes into the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 91/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bride of Frankenstein
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
The Saudi Women’s Driving School

The Curse of La Llorona


Can I get an amen?!

(2019) Horror (New LineLinda Cardellini, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Raymond Cruz, Marisol Ramirez, Patricia Velasquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola, Irene Keng, Oliver Alexander, Aiden Lewandowski, Paul Rodriguez, John Marshall Jones, Ricardo Mamood-Vega, Jayden Valdivia, Andrew Tinpo Lee, Madeleine McGraw, Sophia Santi. Directed by Michael Chaves

Hollywood has yet to mine the extremely fertile soil of Mexican, Central and South American folklore. Some mythic stories go back thousands of years to the Mayans, the Aztecs and other native cultures. Given how repetitive most Hollywood horror movies are, it would seem a slam dunk to try other sources for scares.

Anna (Cardellini) is a widow whose husband, an LAPD cop, died in the line of duty. She’s a social worker who often works with the cops, particularly close friend Detective Cooper (Thomas) who often supplies her with child endangerment cases. One such involves an apparently insane Hispanic mom (Velasquez) whose children have burn marks on their arms and are discovered locked in a closet surrounded by religious icons. This being a horror movie, it’s not the frantic mom who is responsible; it’s La Llorona, a.k.a. The Crying Woman, a 17th century beauty who in a fit of jealous rage drowned her two children when she discovered her husband had been unfaithful.

Now she’s after new children to replace her own little ones and she’s got her eye on Anna’s two kids (Christou and Kinchen). A kindly priest (Amendola), gun-shy after a recent brush with the supernatural, steers her to an ex-priest turned curandero (Cruz) who means to help Anna out by any means he can. However, La Llorona doesn’t take no for an answer easily.

The film is loosely tied to the Conjuring universe by the priest, who appeared in another spin-off that also didn’t involve the Warrens. This is the only movie to date in the Conjuring universe whose big bad didn’t appear in a previous movie which doesn’t hurt the movie as Chaves does a good job of setting the film up in the opening sequences of the film.

The actual La Llorona apparition is pretty cool, appearing often in billowing curtains or emerging from water. There are plenty of attempts to create a spooky atmosphere but too many jump scares ruin the broth. Cardellini is generally a proficient actress but she’s given little to work with here; her That ultimately comes off as colorless. Cruz fares a little bit better, offering a little comic relief.

The movie feels a little bit too much like a paint-by-numbers horror film trying to check all the boxes off on the scorecard. That’s a shame because there was certainly potential for a really whiz-bang horror film here. They got the technical end right; now if only they had the courage of their own convictions and allowed the main character to scare the bejeezus out of us.

REASONS TO SEE: The creature effects are pretty nifty.
REASONS TO AVOID: An overabundance of jump scares as well as an overabundance of child actor overacting..b
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of violence and plenty of scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Amendola reprises the role he played in Annabelle.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/31/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews: Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Legend of La Llorona
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness 2019 concludes!

BrightBurn


With eyes all aglow.

(2019) Superhero Horror (Screen Gems) Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Abraham Clinkscales, Christian Finlayson, Jennifer Holland, Emmie Hunter, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Terence Rosemore, Gregory Alan Williams, Elizabeth Becka, Steve Agee, Michael Rooker, Steve Blackehart, Mike Dunston, Annie Humphrey. Directed by David Yarovesky

 

Superman was very much a product of his times, an alien baby adopted by human parents when his spaceship crashed to Earth. Possessed of nearly godlike powers, he uses those powers for good and upholding truth, justice and the American way. Even in the midst of a Depression, that seemed very plausible to most Americans, particularly in the Heartland where the Superman saga was initially set.

Nowadays, we see things differently. Take the same storyline – with Elizabeth Banks and David Denman taking the roles of Ma and Pa Kent – and even essentially the same location (Kansas) and set in in 2019 and what you have is not an inspiration but sheer terror. This kid is no way going to use his powers for good but instead to tear this country into pieces – small ones.

=It’s a nifty concept although there have been other dark superhero stories before, even horror tinged ones but almost all of them have been on the printed page. There are plenty of nods to the Superman mythos, from the alliteratively named Brandon Breyer (Dunn), the superhero to the red, yellow and blue color scheme that Brandon often wears to the superpowers themselves. At times it gets heavy handed.

The movie was produced by James Gunn who has been a frequent critic of the President and the movie, written by one of his brothers and a cousin, makes some political allusions that are hard to ignore, although some are a bit more tenuous than others. Certainly, those who are sensitive to such things will notice.

Banks actually does a terrific job as a cross between the aforementioned Ma Kent and Laurie Strode. She captures a mother’s undying need to believe in the best of her child even as her husband exclaims “He’s not our child! We found him in the woods!” which is accurate enough but misses the point completely, just like a man as I can hear many women thinking. Most of the rest of the cast is solid.

The ending is anti-climactic which isn’t surprising because the writers pretty much paint themselves into a corner which leads to predictability. I had high hopes for this one because of Gunn’s involvement but this doesn’t live up to the standards of most of his other films. It isn’t a bad movie but it’s disappointing given its pedigree.

REASONS TO SEE: Dunn is sufficiently creepy in this anti-Superman story.
REASONS TO AVOID: Nice concept but a bit too heavy-handed.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some grisly images, profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The school scenes were shot in the same now-closed high school in Georgia where the middle and high school scenes were shot for the hit Netflix series Stranger Things.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews: Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Superman: The Movie
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound