Hereditary


Toni Collette practices her Oscar acceptance speech.

(2018) Horror (A24) Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Christy Summerhays, Morgan Lund, Mallory Bechtel, Jake Brown, Harrison Nell, Briann Rachele, Heidi Mendez, Moises Tovar, Jarrod Phillips, Ann Dowd, Brock McKinney, Zachary Arthur, David Stanley, Bus Riley, Austin Grant, Gabe Eckert, Jason Miyagi, Marilyn Miller, Rachelle Hardy, Georgia Puckett  Directed by Ari Aster

There are critics who shouldn’t be allowed to review some genres. Those who abhor emotional manipulation should not be allowed to review romantic comedies. Those who think movies exist only to illuminate and educate shouldn’t be allowed to review Hong Kong action films or superhero films for that matter. There are some who don’t have the patience for kid flicks. and there are plenty of critics who don’t get horror movies at all who should be kept away from horror movies with physical restraints – and I suspect some of them would be just fine with that. Me, I love horror movies so at least you won’t get genre snobbery below.

\Annie Graham (Collette) is burying her recently deceased mother. She is strangely ambivalent about it; her relationship with her mom was strained to say the least. In fact, the only member of the family who is sorry to see the old lady go is the youngest, daughter Charlie (Shapiro) who is as creepy a child as you’re likely to find on any movie screen, theatrical or home.

Annie has kind of a strange job; she’s an artist who builds miniature rooms with meticulous detail. These rooms are largely from her own past and present. Annie is already kind of a high strung sort much to the chagrin of her stoner teenage son Peter (Wolff) and grounded husband Steve (Byrne). When a second tragedy strikes the family, it threatens to send Annie over the edge.

Reluctantly, she attends a grief-counseling group where she runs into Joan (Dowd), a motherly sort who has lost her husband and son to a car accident. She confides in an increasingly depressed Annie that she has discovered a means of communicating with the dead. Given a straw to cling to, Annie seizes it with both hands but as anyone who knows anything about the horror genre knows, it’s never a good idea to contact the dead.

Now, the synopsis above makes this sound like a pretty run-of-the-mill horror concoction but I assure you that it is not. This is one of the most justifiably acclaimed horror movies of this year or maybe even any other year, both by critics who do get horror films and fans of the genre alike (not to mention film buffs and cinephiles). The movie is ingeniously crafted, a slow burn that builds to an absolutely twisted finale that will leave you terrified of turning out the lights for days.

One of the reasons to love this movie is Toni Collette. Horror films rarely generate Oscars for actors but this is one that truly deserves to. Collette’s depiction of Anne’s descent into paranoid madness is the stuff of horror rubbernecking – you simply can’t turn away. Collette has been nominated for Oscars before but this may well be her best performance. I can’t imagine anyone topping it. The rest of the performances are strong, particularly the always-reliable Byrne, the up-and-coming star Wolff and veteran character actor Dowd. Shapiro is also particularly strong but she doesn’t get as much screen time as the others.

Steve Newburn is credited with designing the miniatures; they are exquisite and add considerably to the creepy factor So too does the score which doesn’t take cheap shots with ersatz scares. When the really scary stuff starts to unfold, it’s honest and quite frankly, this movie is scary as fcuk. Seriously, if you are easily frightened or overly sensitive this movie may well be too much for you.

This is not the kind of movie that throws jump scares at you to keep you off-balance. This is a slow-building ticking time bomb that immerses you in an atmosphere that is both normal and not-quite-right. As things begin to go off the rails for Annie, we begin to understand she’s not the most reliable of narrators. Is it really happening? I say yes. Whether you’re on the same page as I am, this is certainly one of the most unforgettable horror movies of the past decade and if you didn’t see it during its brief run this past summer, you NEED to see it this Halloween.

REASONS TO GO: Collette delivers a career-defining performance. The ending sequence is terrifying. It’s very likely to become a horror classic. The dysfunctional family dynamic feels authentic.
REASONS TO STAY: This might actually be too scary for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of graphic violence and disturbing imagery, some drug use and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Wolff, Byrne and Shapiro knew each other from previous film work; Collette alone didn’t know any of the actors that played her family, contributing to her sense of isolation which comes out in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rosemary’s Baby
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness Day Four

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Winchester


Sarah Winchester doesn’t get out much.

(2018) Horror (CBS) Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Emm Wiseman, Finn Scicluna-O’Prey, Tyler Coppin, Angus Sampson, Alice Chaston, Eamon Farren, Michael Carmen, Bruce Spence, Curtis Bock, Andy de Lore, Adam Bowes, Laura Brent, Amos Ciza, Red Horse Rivera, Tom Heath, Phoenix Suhrou-Dimarco, Laura Sutton. Directed by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig

 

In the face of multiple and intolerable tragedies the human psyche can react in a variety of ways. Sometimes, it gets stronger, allowing the person to become better, more charitable and closer to those they love. Sometimes, it builds a wall, shutting everyone out. Other times, it simply goes around the bend, preferring to explain those tragedies with some sort of preposterous explanation.

By all accounts Sarah Winchester (Mirren) took the latter course. The heiress to the massive fortune of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, following the untimely deaths of her husband and only son became convinced that her family was cursed due to all the deaths caused by the guns her family company had manufactured. She was convinced that the only thing appeasing the ghosts was 24 hour a day seven day a week construction on the mansion she inhabited in San Jose, California – then an orchard-filled backwater town south of San Francisco.

Alarmed at the prospect that the person running the company was a certified loon, the officers of the company set out to, well, certify her. They enlist the aid of San Francisco psychiatrist Eric Price (Clarke) who is slowly drugging himself to oblivion with laudanum, a potent combination of whiskey and opium, after the tragic death of his wife.

Dr. Price is given the rare opportunity to observe Winchester in the confines of her massive home and as time goes by, he discovers that the woman is far from the mentally frail old woman she is portrayed to be; she is, quite frankly, an imposing independent woman who is very clearly in charge of her own household. Yes, she is getting architectural instructions for her kooky mansion via séance but even given that she seems no less sane than you or I…which then leaves the unthinkable conclusion: that she is right about the curse.

I lived for more than a decade in the San Jose area and have been to the Winchester Mystery House; yes, it’s a real mansion and the story of Mrs. Winchester believing the family to be cursed is a true one. Pretty much there is where the similarity between fact and fiction ends. I will say that I have many fond memories of my visits to the mansion and that may color my review a bit. I can tell you that the interiors, built on a set in Australia, are reasonably close to the actual rooms in the mansion that are shown on the tour (the external shots were of the actual house).

Mirren is one of the finest actresses working today and to her credit she makes her portrayal of Sarah Winchester a memorable one, even if it isn’t anything like what the real woman’s personality was said to be – she was rarely seen publicly (only one photograph exists of her) and she was said to be shy and somewhat easily shaken up. The Sarah Winchester here is more of a warrior than a wimp. Clarke also delivers a strong performance here and holds his own against Mirren, no easy task indeed.

There are an awful lot of jump scares – too many for my taste – but when the Spierig brothers go for genuine atmosphere, they succeed. They also use a minimal amount of CGI, opting for more practical effects and dong so makes the movie feel a bit homier, if you get my drift. This is how they used to make them and given the setting, it makes a lot of sense that the Spierigs opted for that route.

This is a haunted house movie that delivers the goods for the most part. While there are some historical inaccuracies (there are references to victims of the Winchester rifle during the Civil War but the company wasn’t formed until 1866, the year after the Civil War ended), the final test of any good horror film is whether you come out the other side grinning ear to ear and so I did. This is complete nonsense but it’s wonderful nonsense.

REASONS TO GO: When it is at its best, the movie succeeds. Mirren is a force of nature here.
REASONS TO STAY: History is played with in a fast and loose manner.
FAMILY VALUES: There is supernatural (and natural) violence, disturbing images, some drug use and sexual allusions.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Sarah Winchester was a mere 4’11” tall and walked with a distinctive gait due to her severe and debilitating arthritis. By comparison, Helen Mirren is 5’4” tall.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 14% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious: The Last Key
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
War Machine

The Haunting in Connecticut


Even Virginia Madsen doesn't like spring cleaning.

Even Virginia Madsen doesn't like spring cleaning.

(Lionsgate) Virginia Madsen, Kyle Gallner, Elias Koteas, Martin Donovan, Amanda Crew, Sophi Knight, Ty Wood, Erik Berg, John Bluethner. Directed by Peter Cornwell

The line between our world and the next is said to be gossamer-thin. There are those who walk that line between our worlds – the sick, the dying, the sensitive. These people can be hyper-aware of things the rest of us cannot know.

The Campbells are a family in crisis. Teenaged Matt (Gallner) is battling a rare form of cancer and is losing that battle. His frequent treatments require long drives into Connecticut, a drive that is excruciating for Matt and his mother Sara (Madsen). The illness has drained the finances of the family considerably, but Sara’s husband Peter (Donovan) has worked hard to overcome his alcohol addiction and is bringing in substantial work as a contractor. Still, the family (including the younger children Mary (Knight) and Billy (Wood) as well as their cousin Wendy (Crew) who has been recruited to help watch the smaller kids) are completely focused on Matt and the decision is made to find a place to live closer to where Matt is receiving his treatments.

The problem is finding something affordable in a particularly affluent part of Connecticut and Sara despairs of ever doing so, until she finds a place that seems perfect at first blush. It’s large enough to accommodate them all, reasonably close to Matt’s doctors and best of all it’s in their price range. The house is older and in need of repairs in some places but otherwise it seems perfect.

The family moves in and Matt is drawn to the basement. It’s cooler down there and has its own bathroom (so that the other kids don’t have to hear Matt vomiting), and there’s a mysterious set of locked doors and frosted windows. Things settle in to a semblance of normalcy, or at least as normal as things can get for a family with a critically ill child.

Then Matt starts seeing things. People who aren’t there, horrible visions of corpses being desecrated, those kinds of things. He’s reluctant to tell his family about them; the radical treatment he’s on is known to cause serious hallucinations as a side-effect and could be the basis of him being denied this treatment.

Then others in the family begin experiencing bizarre things as well. It turns out that the house they moved into was once a funeral home, but not only a funeral home – one in which séances were performed by a gifted young medium named Jonah (Berg) at the direction of the funeral home’s undertaker Ramsey Aickman (Bluethner). It becomes clear that there is something very wrong going on in the house, something beyond our experience. Matt turns to Reverend Popescu (Koteas), who is also receiving the same treatment Matt is and is more sympathetic than Matt’s parents but what does the malevolent force that resides in his house want with Matt?

This is loosely based on an incident that allegedly took place in the late 1980s in Southington, Connecticut and was the subject of a Discovery Channel documentary which is what caught the filmmakers’ attention originally. There has been some controversy about the validity of the claims of the family that became the Campbells in this story, but that’s neither here nor there.

What we’re more interested in is whether this is a good movie or not and surprisingly, it is. The filmmakers use Matt’s illness as an underlying thread far more horrifying in many ways than the spectres and spookies that pop out throughout the movie. The main complain I’ve heard leveled at the film is that there are too many instances of startle scares, scenes where something leaps out at you suddenly with an orchestral screech designed to make you leap out of your seat. A little of that goes a long way, and there are things forever jumping out at the Campbells that by the end of the film it gets to be old hat.

The relationship between Matt and Sara is what works best. Madsen is a capable actress and turns in one of the finest performances of her career here as a mother fiercely determined to see her son better, terrified that he will never be and willing to do anything to ease his suffering. Once in awhile, you can see some of the stress peeking through, as you might in any mother trying her damndest to hold it together in front of the kids.

Gallner and Koteas also turn in fine performances making the suffering of their characters believable. Koteas is a bit grim and kooky but Gallner is a kid coping with something no kid should have to cope with, and he’s the centerpiece here, not a horror hero in the traditional sense but one nonetheless.

Horror fans will be pleased to know that there is plenty of gruesome spectacles as well as some pretty nicely orchestrated scares. The backstory is impeccably logical and consistent, a problem with some supernatural horror movies.

I expected a cheesy B-Movie and instead was rewarded with a surprisingly effective, pleasantly well-acted horror movie that while not a classic was certainly worth my time. I particularly liked the cancer background theme; that seemed very authentic and made the story much more compelling, particularly in the relationship between mother and son. Even the furies of Hell can’t match a pissed off mom protecting her sick kid.

WHY RENT THIS: The scares are very effective and the shocks very visceral. Horror fans will get their fill. The underlying story of Matt’s illness is genuinely affecting, and the effects of his condition on the family make for a compelling subplot.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the plot points are a bit cliché, particularly where they deviate from the original story. The father’s alcoholism was an unnecessary subplot that either should have been explored much further or ignored entirely.

FAMILY VALUES: Some scenes of mutilation and mayhem not for the squeamish. Some extremely nasty scares and nightmare-inducing visuals will make this strictly off-limits for the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Contraversial paranormal investigators Ed and Leslie Warren, who also investigated the Amityville Horror, were the investigators on the case that this is based on.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A feature on post-mortem photography, as well as a re-examination of the original haunting.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Day Three of the Six Days of Darkness