Settlers


Is this what a Martian will look like?

(2021) Science Fiction (IFC Midnight) Sofia Boutella, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Brooklynn Prince, Nell Tiger Free, Jonny Lee Miller, Matthew Van Leeve, Natalie Walsh. Directed by Wyatt Rockefeller

 

The pioneers of the American west learned brutal self-sufficiency out of necessity. There was nobody close by to help if they got into trouble; they had to learn to do for themselves. So it was then; so it will be when the time comes to colonize Mars.

Reza (Miller) and Ilsa (Boutella) are eking out a life on a desolate Martian plane. Earth, as Reza explains to their young daughter Remmy (Prince), is not what it used to be. In the meantime, they go on feeding their pigs, raising what vegetables they can in a small hydroponic garden. They entertain themselves with word games and singalongs. It isn’t much of a life, but it’s a life.

Then one morning they awake to the pigs squealing in terror. On one of their windows the word “LEAVE” is written in bold red paint. Remmy’s reports that there were strangers nearby, which her mom and dad had discounted, suddenly seems much more likely. Then comes Jerry (Cordova), a soldier who claims that the land was his and that Reza and Ilsa are squatters living in the home that is rightfully his. The couple are ready to defend their home with knives and guns; it doesn’t end well for them as Jerry kills Reza in a shoot-out.

Reza moves in, allowing Ilsa and Remmy to stay and at first it seems that he is trying to make a better life for them, much to Remmy’s anger. Ilsa seems more inclined to accept the presence of Jerry than her daughter, although at first, she is just as wary. But as Remmy grows into becoming a young woman (Free), Jerry begins to look at her much differently.

This is a different kind of sci-fi movies. There is an elegiac feel here, a feeling that humanity is on its last legs, but there is also a sense of realism; these are the obstacles that colonists on the Red Planet would face; this is what a Martian farm would look like. The production design, Noam Piper, does a bang-up job here.

Rockefeller does a credible job here, but the story is a bit long-winded and the movie a touch too long. One gets the sense that Rockefeller is trying to make a point about colonialism, but I’m not sure if he’s successful on that front. Mostly, this is a movie about relationships, about loneliness, about doing what one has to in order to survive. Jerry seems to genuinely trying his best to be fair and kind, but he’s no saint and towards the end of the movie a darker side is revealed.

The problem here is that the pacing is very turgid, to the point where it seems like nothing of note goes on for ten, fifteen minutes at a time. Living on a Martian colony is, no doubt, hard. Watching a movie about it shouldn’t be. However, Rockefeller gets points for trying to do something a little bit different, and while we watch billionaires like Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos heading off into space to promote their own commercial ventures there, it reminds us that when actual colonization comes, it won’t be the wealthy feeding their own egos that will accomplish the feat; it will be ordinary men and women who will give everything, to struggle and die far away from out ancestral home, who will make our first footholds on other planets actually stick.

REASONS TO SEE: Impressive production values.
REASONS TO AVOID: Well-intentioned, but ultimately dull.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in South Africa’s Namaqualand desert, subbing for Mars.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews; Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Martian
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Joe Bell

The Djinn


There are some things you don’t want to see in your flashlight beam.

(2021) Horror (IFC Midnight) Ezra Dewey, Rob Brownstein, Tevy Poe, John Erickson, Donald Pitts, Jilbert Daniel, Isaiah Dell, Colin Joe, Omaryus Luckett. Directed by David Charbonier and Justin Powell

 

One of those old truisms that you don’t need to complete the sentence to understand its meaning: “Be careful what you wish for.” As this film posits, also be careful who you make your wish from.

Dylan (Dewey) is a mute 12-year-old boy reeling from a family tragedy. His dad (Brownstein) is a late night DJ who is working a double shift on what the title card describes as a pleasant summer night in 1989. The two men have moved into a new house in a new town and Dylan will be on his own until Dad comes home. The bond between them is strong but Dylan wonders, using American Sign Language, “Would Mom have left if I weren’t…different?” While Dad assures him that he’s perfect the way he is, Dylan isn’t so sure.

Dylan also confirms that the previous resident, an old man (Pitts), indeed died there. He thoughtfully left behind a framed portrait of himself, as well as The Book of Shadows in a burlap sack for Dylan to find, complete with instructions on how to summon a Djinn who would grant whichever wish Dylan makes – so long as he survives an hour alone with the Djinn and so longas he does’t extinguish the candle he has lit for the ceremony before midnight. Those Djinn, they’re sticklers for the rules.

Most of the film is of a terrified Dylan fleeing and hiding from the Djinn (Erickson) while having flashbacks of his sad, disturbed mom (Poe). The Djinn can take a number of different forms and it does so throughout the short running time of the film, giving Dylan a different horror to deal with. All of this is done with virtually no dialogue; what dialogue there is occurs at a dinner table scene at the beginning of the film and is spoken by Dylan’s Dad. There is also a recording of the instructions for summoning the Djinn, although whether that is in Dylan’s head or not is up to your interpretation.

For a film like this to work you need a child actor who can express a variety of emotions (mainly fear) almost completely through body language and facial expression, and the filmmakers found one in Dewey. He does a remarkable job carrying the film on his frail shoulders, although the filmmakers tendency to use extreme close-ups of his face in a rictus of terror doesn’t do him any favors. However, for a role like this they coud have done much, much worse.

The monster itself isn’t super terrifying although it does the trick for the most part. There is an overuse of jump scares, particularly a central air unit that kicks off with an apocalyptic thud that would fray the nerves of any homeowner after not too long.

There are a fair amount of horror tropes here and the filmmakers wisely don’t try to reinvent the wheel. What they do is provide a basic, no-frills horror film off of an interesting premise and deliver it in a compact amount of time without an overabundance of filler. These days, that’s something of an accomplishment.

REASONS TO SEE: Different in a good way. Some nice world building.
REASONS TO AVOID: Relies a bit too much on jump scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some frightening violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In Islamic/Arabic mythology, a djinn is a highly intelligent spirit who is neither good nor evil, but is capable of mimicking any form and occasionally can possess human beings.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews; Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Witchboard
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Inhabitants: An Indigenous Perspective

Come True


Julia Sarah Stone is feeling blue.

(2020) Sci-Fi Horror (IFC Midnight) Julia Sarah Stone, Landon Liboiron, Carlee Ryski, Christopher Heatherington, Tedra Rogers, Brandon DeWyn, John Tasker, Austin Baker, Shane Ghostkeeper, Christopher Thomas, Caroline Buzanko, Orin McCusker, Tyler Dreger, Karen Johnson-Diamond, Tiffany Helm, Maria Renae, Millie Jayne, Alex Cherovsky, Michelle Rios, Pamela Parker. Directed by Anthony Scott Burns

Dreams serve a therapeutic purpose, allowing the demons of our subconscious to stretch their metaphysical legs, as it were. Nightmares, though, are mostly just unpleasant and while they serve their own purpose, I think it’s safe to say that most of us would rather do without them. Nightmares are a pain in the ass; for some, however, they take over, become obsessions and perhaps imperil our sanity – and perhaps our lives.

18-year-old Canadian high school graduate Sarah Dunne (Stone) is one such. Every night she finds a different place to sleep – a friend’s house, the playground at her local park and so on. She is subject to sleep paralysis and vivid, terrifying dreams that have begun to take over her life. She has had a falling out with her mom and generally avoids her, stopping by her home only to shower and grab a change of clothes.

When she is given a flyer advertising a sleep study, she’s intrigued. A safe place to sleep where she will be monitored, where she’ll be paid and best of all, perhaps a cure for her affliction can be found. It’s a win-win-win situation. But right away, she senses that there is something not quite aboveboard in the study. The man running it, Dr. Meyer (Heatherington) seems to be way creepier than she would like, and the questions his assistant Anita (Ryski) asks following her night’s sleep are invasive and troubling. Worse yet, there is creepy nerd Jeremy (Liboiron) who may or may not be stalking her nd who may or may not be willing to tell her the dirty little secret behind this particular sleep study.

But things take a lurching turn for the worse when it begins to feel like Sarah’s waking life and dream life are beginning to merge, with frightening consequences.

Burns, in his second feature film, has some really promising ideas here, which sadly don’t quite add up to a completely satisfying film. The moody dream sequences are seriously underlit, which while atmospheric also makes it hard to figure out what’s going on at times which gets frustrating when repeated several times throughout the film. He also has a good sense of style; the movie becomes more dream-like the longer it goes on until he climax which is, sadly, a bit unsatisfying.

Stone has a kind of fresh-faced appeal and while her character is made to assert her over-18 status a bit too much – probably to make her romance with an older man a little less cringe-inducing – she still comes off as a strong, charismatic lead. Some of the imagery here is truly frightening and isn’t something you will want to watch just before bedtime. There is also a bit more technobabble than I generally like – that’s more of a personal preference – and Sarah’s angst which seems to stem from a rift with her mom which is never explained can get tiresome to people who don’t really care what the latest social media app has to offer.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything worthwhile here. Burns has an original voice and some decent instincts, but I get the sense that he isn’t quite adept at making that voice audible just yet. I’m hoping that he’ll continue to develop his talents because there’s definitely a sense that he’s got something special inside him that one day is going to flower and blow us all away. While this isn’t the film that’s going to do that, it certainly has enough positives that you might want to check it out or at least keep an eye out for his future endeavors.

REASONS TO SEE: Fascinating concept. Dream-like presentation.
REASONS TO AVOID: Execution is lacking. Too much technobabble and teen angst.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, terrifying imagery and some scenes of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Burns’ second feature film after Our House (2018).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/15/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dreamscape
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Test Pattern

The Night


The first rule of horror movies – don’t look behind you.

(2020) Horror (IFC MidnightShahab Hosseini, Niousha Noor, George Maguire, Michael Graham, Elester Latham, Armin Amiri, Steph Martinez (voice), Kathreen Khavari, Gia Mora, Leah Oganyan, Lily V.K., Ali Kousheshi, Amir Ali Hosseini, Hana Rahimzadeh, Sam Tarazandehpour, Boshra Haghighi, Sara Fuqua. Directed by Kourosh Ahari

 

Sometimes, we lose our way. Not just metaphorically, but literally – and not unusually, both at once. Finding our way back home is hard enough when our GPS is faulty. Sometimes, we have to fight through demons of another kind, too.

Babak (Hosseini) and Neda (Noor) have been enjoying an evening out with their friends. Party games, good food and the company of their friends should be the recipe for a pleasant evening, but it is obvious there is some tension between them. Babak has had maybe a little too much to drink and the couple, along with their infant daughter, are getting ready to head back home.

But Babak is probably in no shape to drive, and Neda’s license has been suspended so Babak definitely doesn’t want her driving. So the Iranian-American couple head through the twists and turns of Los Angeles late at night and get lost. Oh, they have a GPS but it’s acting wonky. Running low on gas and definitely in the kind of neighborhood you don’t want to run out of gas in, they decide to pull into a hotel and sleep it off until morning.

The Hotel Normandie seems ordinary enough from the outside, but an unsettling encounter with a homeless man (Latham) does nothing to alleviate Neda’s already frazzled state of mind, and while the obsequious night manager (Maguire) seems courteous enough, there’s just something off about him.

They check into their room and right away it’s rough sledding. Their daughter is being fussy, and for good reason; there is an uncommon amount of unsettling noise to be heard, from the footsteps in the room above to the child plaintively calling out for his mother and the loud knocking noises. At first, they chalk it up to their own state of mind but soon they begin to see things that causes them to realize that there is something very wrong at the Hotel Normandie which like another famous California hotel, is the kind where you can check out any time you like but you can never leave.

From a technical standpoint, this is an amazing piece of work. Sound is utilized in a powerful fashion, and not just for jump scares (although there are a few of those). There is also a very effective use of light and shadow and cinematographer Maz Makhani does an excellent job of creating a creepy vibe (the Hotel Normandie, incidentally, is a real hotel and was used as a filming location for the movie). It might surprise you to know that the cast and crew were largely Iranian or Iranian-American and although most of the dialogue is in Farsi, the locations were all right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Both Hosseini and Noor need to be at the top of their game because they are in virtually every seen either separately or together. There must be enough chemistry together to convince us that they are married, but enough discord between them to remind us that the marriage is in trouble. Even the soundtrack is calculated to rachet up the tension without using horror movie tropes – or at least not many.

The movie may be paced a little bit slower than most American audiences are used to, but Ahari is like a master chef here, layering clues and subtle hints to give you a picture, but never makes it obvious what’s cooking; it is left to the viewer to figure out what it all meant and whether what you saw is what you think you saw.

=Unfortunately, that can work both ways – for and against a film. There’s a maddening feeling like you’re seeing only a portion of the movie and that critical pieces are being left out. Even after the strong ending, and although much of what is happening is explained, I still left the film feeling like I’d seen an incomplete picture, like there were important things just out of frame that I should have been able to see. While I like the feeling now more than a week after I viewed the film, at the time I didn’t appreciate it at all.

This is an impressive work, albeit a flawed one. The scares are mainly subtle and the horror rarely overt, although new parents will certainly chime in when I say that a fussy baby can be a horror show all its own.

REASONS TO SEE: An atmospheric horror film with terrific sound and cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: The acting can be over-the-top.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and sequences of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first American-made film to be invited to screen in Iran since the Iranian Revolution.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/3/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews, Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Followed
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Riding the Rails

Rent-a-Pal


Television is my only friend.

(2020) Horror (IFC MidnightBrian Landis Folkins, Wil Wheaton, Amy Rutledge, Kathleen Brady, Adrian Egolf, Josh Staab, Luke Sorge, Brandon Fryman, Olivia Hendrick, Karin Carr, Sara Woodyard. Directed by Jon Stevenson

 

Loneliness can do strange things to the human mind. It can be as comfortable as an old friend, but it also gives us the opportunity to twist and turn every life failure that we’ve partaken in. Eventually, loneliness feeds on us much as a vulture that isn’t willing for the carrion to die.

David (Folkins) lives in a small Midwestern town and takes care of his mother (Brady) who is suffering from dementia, often mistaking David for his deceased father. Mom is often nasty to her son, who just seems to take it with a shrug. It’s 1990 and he doesn’t even have online chat rooms for company; mostly he watches old movies with his mom. He has gotten desperate enough to enroll in a video dating service.

This particular one requires their clients to make an introductory video. The “relationship experts” that work at the service then match the tapes up with people with similar interests; if the client wants to view the tape of someone who matches with him, they have to pay for the privilege. It’s lucrative, but you’d never know it from David who doesn’t match up with anybody.

On a trip back to the service to re-record his video as an update, David happens upon a videotape in the bargain bin called “Rent-a-Pal” and takes it and is thus introduced to Andy (Wheaton), a grinning sweater vest-wearing guy who carries on a conversation with pauses so that the viewer can respond. The lonely David is skeptical at first but eventually seizes on this lifeline and begins to converse with Andy, playing the tape night after night after night.

Then, something of a miracle happens – David gets a match, from Lisa (Rutledge), a kind-hearted nurse. The date goes well, and things are suddenly looking up for David. However, Andy isn’t so happy about his friend deserting him for a mere woman; there’s about to be a battle for David’s attention and it’s not going to be pretty.

Loneliness and isolation are particularly on our minds in this age of quarantine, where most of our interactions are done via Zoom and when more and more people who are working from home and sheltering in place by themselves are finding themselves to be more and more suicidal. Just because we’re safe from a coronavirus doesn’t necessarily mean we are safe. Depression is far more insidious and doesn’t respect a mask.

David is one of those big, lumbering schlubs who are awkward both socially and physically. His heart seems to be in the right place but the more the movie wears on, the more we see how wounded his loneliness has made him. Gradually, he begins to descend into madness as he imagines that Andy is talking directly to him and listening to his every confession of failure. For Folkins, it is a masterful performance and one you won’t soon forget.

But as good as Folkins is, Wheaton is just as good and maybe a little bit better. He comes off as a cross between Mister Rogers and Beelzebub and his innocuous sweater vest and disarming grin doesn’t hide the fact that Andy doesn’t like women very much, and isn’t a particularly nice guy. I thought at first this would be like what Wesley Crusher would be like at 40, but that’s not quite accurate; it would be like what Wesley Crusher would be like at 40 if he had completely failed at life and romance.

Stevenson in addition to writing and directing the film also edited it, and he shows some real skills in all three; the editing is masterfully done, often giving the illusion that David is having a different conversation with Andy even though Andy isn’t saying anything different than he usually does. It raises the question in the viewer’s mind if there isn’t something supernatural going on, although what’s going on is clearly mostly in between David’s ears. Stevenson also invokes a strong sense of period, with the videocassettes and utilizing a great score by Jimmy Weber that calls to mind some of John Carpenter’s work.

The final scenes are fairly gory and more of a standard horror film type of thing, which some critics found disappointing after the effective build-up of tension and suspense; I thought that the ending was justifiable and while it is a distinct left turn from the feel of the rest of the movie, it isn’t too far of a change of route.

This is a solid suspense/psychological horror film that relies on two strong actors bringing well-written characters to life. This isn’t a loud, in-your-face kind of terror that you get here, but more of a slow building dread. It’s very effective and worth checking out.

REASONS TO SEE: Nice placement in the 90s. Surprisingly creepy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have gone for the gusto a bit more.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some sexual references and violence..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Folkins previously worked with Stevenson in the horror film Hoax.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Session 9
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
I Am Woman

Centigrade (2020)


Baby, it’s cold outside.

(2020) Thriller (IFC MidnightGenesis Rodriguez, Vincent Piazza. Directed by Brendan Walsh

 

I think one of the basic fears of modern man is being stranded, particularly in the middle of nowhere. We rely so much on our modern conveniences – a working car, the Internet, our creature comforts – that when they’re taken away, we’re at a loss as what to do. In the immortal words of The Clash, should I stay or should I go?That’s what faces young American married couple Matt (Piazza) and Naomi (Rodriguez) when they pull over to the side of the road one night during a blizzard. They are on a European book tour for her latest tome, and were driving to their next stop, a hotel in the hinterlands of Norway. She is very pregnant, nearly ready to give birth and they wake up after sleeping the night away to discover that the car won’t start. They can’t open the doors because of the weight of all the ice and snow. It is dangerously cold, and they have precious little in the way of food and water.

The two have very different ideas as to what they should do next. One of them wants to stay put and wait for rescue, while the other thinks that their best chance of survival rests on getting out of the car and walking to safety. Initially, it’s not much of an argument – getting out of the car is out of the question anyway, so they are more or less forced to stay put but as time goes by and desperation grows, something is going to have to give or all that will be found of them re their frozen bodies, still wrapped in blankets in the car.

Rodriguez and Piazza are both fine actors and they do a decent job. It’s a pity that they weren’t given more defined characters to work with. We really don’t find out very much about them during the course of the 90 minutes we are forced to spend with them, which considering that they are stuck inside a car with nothing to do, seems to be almost criminal. They do bicker, but so do most couples and the stress of a life-or-death survival situation is likely to bring out the worst in both of them.

The production is pretty minimalist which makes sense given the confined quarters the characters are in. Walsh at least is creative with his camera angles, but after a while it isn’t really enough to keep our interest. This is the type of movie that would have been much better as a short than as a feature length film; there’s not enough dramatic conflict to sustain us and we don’t even get the benefit of flashbacks to change the monotony

A word about true stories: the movie claims it is “inspired by a true story,” but I couldn’t find any information anywhere about whose story this was based on. That could mean one of two things (at least that come to mind right away); either the people this happened to were unwilling to grant the rights to their story, or the finished story veered so far away from the truth that the real couple wanted nothing to do with it. For all we know, some friend of the producer might have been stranded in their car on a chilly night and the producer thought “Hey, this could be a great movie if we add a blizzard….and they’re snowed in! Yeah, that’s the ticket!!!” All kidding aside, the words “inspired by” can hide a lot of sins, so take the true story aspect with a grain of salt. One aspect couldn’t possibly be true; no obstetrician on the planet would let a woman as pregnant as Naomi fly to Europe to do a book tour.

This is another case of strong concept, less successful execution. For a movie like this to work, we have to get invested in the characters and without really getting much of a glimpse as to who they are, we haven’t much to hold onto and so our interest wanes. Even though the movie isn’t a long one, the lack of action or character development really made it feel much longer. That might be a little bit cold to say, but given the circumstances I think it justified. Still, the actors do give it their all, so if you like either Piazza or Rodriguez (or both) this isn’t a bad rental, but otherwise this is disappointing to say the least.

REASONS TO SEE: Nicely tense and claustrophobic.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too long for the type of movie it is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a pretty good amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rodriguez and Piazza are an actual couple in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews, Metacritic: 42/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lamp Light
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Unfamiliar

Sputnik


A space oddity.

(2020) Sci-Fi Horror (IFC Midnight) Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondrachuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Anton Vasilev, Aleksey Demidov, Aleksandr Manushev, Albrecht Zander, Vitaliya Kornienko, Vasiliy Zotov, Anna Nazarova. Directed by Egor Abramenko

It is said that in space, nobody can hear you scream; in a Soviet-era research facility slash prison, everybody can hear you scream – they just pretend not to.

It’s 1983 and do you know where your cosmonauts are? It is the last gasp of the Cold War and a Soviet space mission has crash landed, leaving one cosmonaut dead and the other, Konstantin Veshnyakov (Fyodorov) with amnesia. He is brought to a forbidding research facility by Colonel Semiradov (Bondrachuk), a fatherly sort who seems genuinely interested in finding out what happened. To that end, he enlists disgraced psychologist Tatyana Klimova (Akinshina) who cured a young teen of his fears by holding his head underwater. That’s apparently too extreme even for the USSR, so she’s about to experience an abrupt career change when she’s approached by Semiradov to see if she can rescue the memories from the cosmonaut, a national hero.

But it turns out that the hero isn’t alone inside his body. He has an alien hitchhiker, translucent and almost jelly-like, able to fold itself into a much smaller space – say, a man’s esophagus – and come out at night to feed. And what does an alien parasite – or is that symbiote? – eat? Cortisol, the pheromone of fear. And then, he tears off the head of the victim and feeds more conventionally.

Tatyana is determined to suss out Konstantin’s secrets and is remarkably successful, in more ways than she can imagine – she begins to develop sympathy, and then maybe emotional attachment – to Veshnyakov. When it turns out that the government is interested in the little stowaway and has some pretty nasty plans for it, she knows she and Konstantin need to make a run for it, but where can they go that would be safe from the creature inside?

In a lot of ways this harkens back to the creature features of the late 70s and 80s, particularly Ridley Scott’s Alien and the other films (and there are many) that it inspired. The parasite/symbiote is no xenomorph, but it is virtually indestructible and very, very aggressive. Tatyana wants to get the creature out of Veshnyakov without killing him; she is the conscience. Veshnyakov is the id, where the monsters dwell. Semiradov, who comes off something like a Bond villain here, is the cold logic unencumbered by compassion. In a sense, he is as much a monster as the alien.

Abramenko has assembled a slick-looking film that takes good advantage of Soviet-era brutalist architecture and of the horror tropes of the era that the film is set in. It is a bit of a slow burn, but it does heat up until it gets to its preposterous yet nevertheless satisfying ending.

The creature design is off the chain; it’s scary as hell, completely alien but makes logical sense. Akinshina and Fyodorov do good work as the heroic leads, but it is Bondrachuk who really shines as the kindly-on-the-surface-but cruel-to-the-core Colonel, whose absolute loyalty to the state will ring a troubling chord for some who have seen this kind of obsession all too often these days.

This is another great horror film for 2020, a year that seems to be destined to be remembered as a horror film in and of itself. I had a few quibbles – the creature is introduced far too early, robbing it of some of its effectiveness, and the pacing is a little uneven and there are a few too many clichés at work, but overall, this is a stellar horror film that is bound to have you wishing for a brightly lit place to repair to immediately afterward.

REASONS TO SEE: Does a good job building the tension. The creature effects are solid. Spartan production puts emphasis on the story.
REASONS TO AVOID: Reveals the creature far too early.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence, gore and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the performance footage was originally filmed in black and white, but was restored to full color for use in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews, Metacritic: 61/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Apollo 18
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Hole in the Ground

The Rental


Beware of dark shadows.

(2020) Horror (IFC Midnight) Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss, Anthony Molinari, Connie Wellman. Directed by Dave Franco

 

The Internet Age has given us, among many other ostensibly helpful programs, Air BnB; the ability to rent out our homes as vacation properties. Millions take advantage of the program, which is kind of a crap shoot; when it works out, you’ll find yourself in a much more comfortable environment than a hotel, and generally for a lot less. When it doesn’t, you can end up in an absolute dump – or with an owner who might not be altogether benevolent.

A pair of 30-something couples – start-up entrepreneur Charlie (Stevens), his hot-tempered and less successful little brother Josh (White), Charlie’s wife Michelle (Brie) and Josh’s girlfriend Mina (Vand), who also happens to be Charlie’s business partner. With a big project looming on the horizon, Charlie and Mina figure a weekend of R&R would be just the thing before several months of long hours and stressful deadlines become the norm for both of them. They find what looks like an ideal seaside home.

There are some issues; when Mina tries to rent the property, she’s turned down. When Charlies tries again an hour later, his rental is accepted. Mina, who has a Middle Eastern last name, cries racism and confronts the caretaker Taylor (Huss) with her accusations; he neither confirms nor denies them, but informs her that he isn’t the owner but the brother of the owner who is rarely home to use the property.

Although the property seems absolutely perfect, with a hot tub overlooking the ocean and all the modern amenities, there is a feeling that something is off. For one, Taylor comes off as kind of a racist creep. For another, there’s the locked door with an electronic lock which just smacks of “something to hide.” As the weekend wears on, the underlying tensions between the two couples begin to surface as the bickering and accusations start. When Mina discovers a closed circuit miniature camera in the shower head, she realizes that they are being watched, and that someone is getting their jollies watching the two couples take molly, fool around and bicker. There’s someone watching them and that generally isn’t a good thing.

Franco, who co-wrote the film with mumblecore legend Joe Swanberg, sets the film off as a slow burn, gradually building the tension until the climax, although that climax takes off in an unexpected direction, like an RC airplane with a faulty rudder. What starts off as an amazing psychological horror film and character study ends up during the last 20 minutes as a more traditional visceral horror film which is somewhat disappointing.

Disappointing because the movie shows the vulnerability of renting from a site like Air BnB; we put out trust in homeowners based on a few good ratings. If those owners turn out to be homicidal maniacs, we have no way of knowing or preparing and certainly no way of protecting ourselves. It’s a chilling thought and one the movie exploits early on before turning itself into a standard slasher film, complete with a too-long coda setting the film up as a potential franchise.

As an actor, Franco relates well to his cast and they do good work here. Most surprising was White, who gives Josh a nuanced character; unselfconfident after his violent temperament had landed him in trouble with the law earlier in life especially given his brother’s financial and personal success, he still has a hair-trigger temper which surfaces late in the film. Most of the rest of the way he seems like a genuinely sweet guy with difficulty believing in himself.

Slasher fans will find the movie a little too slow-developing for their tastes (unless they love psychological horror films that build gradually as well) and the frenetic ending will disappoint fans of psychological horror. Nevertheless this is a strong debut from Franco and while it isn’t likely to have the impact that his brother James’ debut did, it makes for some marvelous summertime genre viewing.

REASONS TO SEE: A true slow burn. The cast is terrific, but White is a real find.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is just too ludicrous to ignore.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is profanity, drug use, sexuality and graphic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alison Brie is married to Dave Franco, who is making his feature directing debut here.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews; Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crawlspace
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful

Relic


All is not well in this house.

(2020) Horror (IFC Midnight Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote, Jeremy Stanford, Chris Bunton, Christina O’Neill, Catherine Glavicic, Steve Rodgers, John Browning, Robin Northover. Directed by Natalie Erika James

 

The most frequent description I’ve seen of this impressive first feature by Japanese-Australian director Natalie Erika James is “slow burn” and that’s extremely apt. This is a movie that takes it’s time and builds organically to a terrifying conclusion that will leave you breathless.

When octogenarian Edna (Nevin) is reported missing, her concerned daughter Kay (Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Heathcote) hurry to her decaying old home on the outskirts of Melbourne. There is clearly tension between mother and daughter, but there is also a great sigh of relief when Edna turns up with no memory of where she’s been, nor how she got those ominous black bruises on her chest.

But Edna isn’t at all well; she doesn’t recognize her house or even her family at times, and her mood swings are growing progressively more violent. Kay is trying to organize the house and look into a care home for Edna, while Sam is wondering why Edna doesn’t move in with Kay, or Sam with Edna. The deterioration of Edna’s mind is mirrored by the deterioration in Edna’s house; mold and mildew throughout the once-great home, things behind the wall that unexpectedly go thump and a stained glass window that was once part of a cottage that stood on the property but has long since been demolished but is a connection to a family secret that is rearing its ugly head.

Creaky old houses are naturally perfect locations for horror films and in particular for this one. There are plenty of noises in this house, from loud bangs to whispered conversations Edna has with people only she can see. James, who co-wrote the screenplay and based the movie on her experiences with her own grandmother who was afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, has a sure, patient hand, allowing the mood to grow until by the end of the movie the tension is nearly unbearable. She has a deft touch for horror, which sometimes gets treated with in a heavy-handed manner; good horror movies don’t necessarily have to be screams when whispers can be far more terrifying.

James was fortunate enough to get three strong actresses for the lead. Mortimer is one of the world’s most capable actresses – I can’t recall a single subpar performance on her part – and Heathcote has become one of the best young actresses in the business today. Nevin will be less known to American audiences. A veteran of Australian stage and television, she is absolutely mesmerizing here, giving a performance that is strangely sympathetic even as her mind slpis away. It’s heartbreaking to watch, yes, but also terrifying as there are hints of a supernatural presence involved.

The scares are mostly accomplished with practical effects, with sound being predominant – this is a movie that takes “things that go bump in the night” quite literally. In fact, be aware while watching it that the pounding that you hear throughout the movie may be headache-inducing for you – it was for me, although considering how effective the thumps were, I didn’t mind quite so much as I might have. While the one misstep in the film is an overabundance of jump scares which are a cheap way of getting a gasp from your audience. For the most part, though, James relies on atmosphere and superb performances from her leads to get this film on the radar for one of the top horror films (so far) of 2020. I’ll be watching with interest to see what Ms. James does next.

REASONS TO SEE: The use of sound effects is second to none. Creepy and disturbing. Nevin gives an astonishing performance as the demonic grandma.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit repetitive in its use of jump scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, brief nudity, and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its debut at Sundance earlier this year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews, Metacritic: 77/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Others
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Olympia

The Wretched


When a troubled teen comes to call, don’t always answer the door.

(2019) Horror (IFC Midnight)  John-Paul Howard, Piper Curda, Jamison Jones, Azie Tesfai, Zarah Mahler, Kevin Bigley, Gabriela Quezada Bloomgarden, Richard Ellis, Blane Cockarell, Judah Abner Paul, Ja’layah Washington, Amy Waller, Ross Kidder, Kasey Bell, Harry Burkey, Trudie Underhiill, Sydne Mikelle, Tug Coker, Madelynn Stunekel.  Directed by Brett Pierce and Drew T. Pierce

 

In this pandemic, we’ve focused on the most vulnerable members of our society – the elderly. However, we sometimes forget the other vulnerable side of society – the children. The Pierce brothers, who have assembled this slick horror yarn together, certainly haven’t.

In the 1980s, a hapless babysitter stumbles on the mother of her charge chowing down on her own kid. Faster than you ca say Dario Argento she ends up locked in the cellar with a hungry mama. Flash forward to now which is when sullen rebellious teen Ben (Howard) is forced to spend the summer with his Dad working the lakeside marina in Michigan with his Dad (Jones) after an incident left him with a broken arm and an exasperated mom.

The only consolation is the perky Mallory (Curda) who works at the marina with him, so Ben battens down the hatches for a rough summer squall, made even rougher when he gets the depressing news that his dad has a new girlfriend (Tesfai). However, that soon takes a back seat to the family next door, whose tattooed mom Sara (Mahler) has taken to scaring her young son (Cockarell) and butchering a deer she accidentally hits with her car on the way home from a walk in the woods. Unbeknownst to her, there was something hiding in the deer carcass, something that has designs on her but more to the point, to feed on her son.

Nobody believes Ben that there is something very sinister going on so in the finest plucky teen fashion he goes about trying to save the town from itself but it isn’t easy because nobody can remember the family next door having a child. That turns out to be really inconvenient – and puts the crosshairs right on Ben.

It’s no accident that the film’s prelude took place in the 80s, because the movie is rooted in the cinema of that era. There are elements of Steven Spielberg fantasy, with the broken family and the plucky kids; it’s an oeuvre that has become massively popular as of late thanks to the Netflix series Stranger Things but other than the intro, this film is also rooted firmly in modern horror.

To the credit of the Pierce Brothers and their cinematographer Conor Murphy, the movie looks like something that a major studio might have put out. Every technical aspect of the film works to perfection, from the mainly practical effects to the score to the sound to the set design. There are some really nice scares to be had here, although there’s a feeling that the Pierce Brothers realized that their budget was such that they couldn’t afford a really decent build-up so they skipped right to the climactic battle. For that reason, the pacing feels a bit off and the ending disappointing.

Still, this is an engaging and – dare I say it – fun summer-style horror film that makes for essential quarantine viewing, particularly for those who love the influences I mentioned. If anyone who loves the horror genre is looking for the next James Wan, we may have found them for you.

REASONS TO SEE: The horror sequences are well-done.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending feels a bit rushed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, sexual situations, child peril and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in Northport, Michigan.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fright Night
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Aquaman