The Blair Witch Project


Fear and regret are not enough to assuage evil.

(1999) Horror (ArtisanHeather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard, Bob Griffin, Jim King, Sandra Sanchez, Ed Swanson, Patricia DeCou, Mark Mason, Jackie Hallex. Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez

Some movies are victims of their own success. The Blair Witch Project was the forerunner of the “found footage” horror film craze that dominated the horror scene in the early part of the first decade of the century. The movie became so imitated that it has become a cliché in retrospect. Perhaps that is the ultimate honor for a movie; after all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

By now, most folks know the basics about the movie; three student filmmakers venture into the Maryland woods to make a documentary about the legendary Blair Witch. They vanish from the face of the Earth until a year later, when the unsettling footage is found. The marketing campaign for the movie was so brilliant – really, it was the first successful viral marketing campaign in history – that many people, myself included, thought that both the legend and the story of the filmmakers were real. The mother of actress Heather Donahue received sympathy cards from friends and acquaintances who thought her daughter was really missing.

The production, shot for less than $90K (and would return nearly $250 million at the box office, making it one of the most profitable films ever made to this day), wisely refrains from showing us the actual Blair Witch, or anything supernatural. Everything happens off-camera. Much of the sense of dread and fear comes from sounds in the dark; of the sensation that the hapless kids are being stalked by something in the woods. Our imagination fills in the blanks.

Does it hold up to repeated viewings? That’s another question entirely. I’ve rewatched the film several times since first seeing it in a theater back in 1999 when it came out and to be honest, the experience doesn’t quite measure up to the one of a theater full of people seeing the movie for the first time. I would guess that it would be hard to re-create that environment nowadays, even with reduced capacities in the theaters due to the pandemic. I think much of the power of the film comes from the nagging feeling that what you are seeing actually happened and that the three kids that you’re watching fall apart in the woods are real kids who are no longer with us. That adds an emotional wallop that no amount of CGI can duplicate.

For all its flaws, The Blair Witch Project stands as a watershed horror film, the kind that comes along once in a generation. Likely we won’t see the like again for a long time, the kind of film that changes the game for horror films in general. In fact, the movie would shift horror films away from the torture porn that dominated horror box office at the time to lower budget atmospheric horror movies that made a connection to the real world that the viewer lives in. The true horror is not in monsters and demons and ghosts; the true horror comes from This could happen.

REASONS TO SEE: The rare occasion where a marketing campaign enhanced a movie. The three then-unknown actors were all perfectly believable. Genuinely terrifying.
REASONS TO AVOID:  Original premise, although it hasn’t held up largely because it was so oft-imitated.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie proved to be so popular that it nearly ruined the area’s 1999-2000 hunting season due to so many fans flocking to the woods to shoot their own documentaries.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Sling TV, TBS, TNT, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/31/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paranormal Activity
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Yellow Rose

Ma


Everyone ready to party with Ma?

(2020) Horror (Blumhouse/UniversalOctavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Gianni Paolo, Dante Brown, Tanyell Waivers, Dominic Burgess, Heather Marie Pete, Tate Taylor, Luke Evans, Margaret Fegan, Missi Pyle, Allison Janney, Kyanna Simone Simpson, Matthew Welch, Skyler Joy, Nicole Carpenter. Directed by Tate Taylor

High school is a time when we find ourselves, or at least begin to. One of the things we explore is alcohol. It’s illegal – forbidden – so naturally, we have to check it out. Teenagers are natural contrarians to begin with, so telling them they can’t do something is tantamount to giving them incentive to do just that. A friend of mine who fancied himself a wag once said that the only way to get his teenage daughter to do her homework was tell her she wasn’t allowed to do it.

Young Maggie (Silvers) has moved to a small town in Ohio with her freshly-divorced Mom (Lewis). Her mother grew up there and still has a lot of her friends living there. Maggie is a bit on the shy side, but quickly makes a bunch of friends and just as quickly finds out that there’s not a lot for kids her age to do in town other than to score some alcohol and find a place to party, mainly in places that are probably not ideal for a bunch of drunk kids to hang out in.

Trying to get an adult to buy some liquor for them proves to be difficult until along comes Sue Ann (Spencer), a veterinary assistant who remembers what it’s like to be young. She offers her basement for the young people to party in, once she buys the laundry list of liquor that they provide her. She just has a few ground rules; no spitting on the floor, no taking the Lord’s name in vain, and under NO circumstances are the kids to go upstairs.

At first, the situation seems to be ideal – a safe place to get hammered, and Sue Ann turns out to be a fun party thrower. She gets everyone to refer to her as Ma, and soon she starts to become more and more entwined in their lives. It starts to get more than a little creepy and when the kids start to push back, they start to realize there’s something seriously wrong with Sue Ann.

Spencer won her Oscar under the direction of Taylor, so it’s no surprise that she turns in another brilliant performance here. Sue Ann is a complicated emotional creature and often her moods spin on a dime, from motherly to sexual to full-on rage-aholic. Sue Ann isn’t completely evil; there’s some pathos to her story and Spencer makes the audience believe that here is a seriously wounded psyche. We feel bad for her – until she snaps.

The problem here is that the most relatable character here is Sue Ann. The teenage kids with the possible exception of Maggie are all seriously self-absorbed and borderline cruel. Most of them are pretty much interchangeable. The adult roles have some strong actors, including Janney, having a ball as a bossy vet, and Lewis who for my money has been criminally underrated throughout her career.

The movie takes a while to get moving, but once it does Taylor knows what to do with it. Spencer is definitely the reason to see this, but she’s got some decent support – although not enough to elevate this out of middlin’.

REASONS TO SEE: Spencer gives her usual strong performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Hard to root for anybody in this typical “teens in trouble” romp.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence – some of it brutal – as well as sexual content, teen drinking and drug use, profanity throughout, and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Taylor previously directed Spencer and Janey in The Help.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews; Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Uncle Peckerhead
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness concludes!

Us


The strangers in your skin.

(2019) Horror (UniversalLupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Anna Diop, Cali Sheldon, Noelle Sheldon, Madison Curry, Ashley McKoy, Napiera Groves, Lon Gowan, Alan Frazier, Duke Nicholson, Dustin Ybarra, Nathan Harrington, Kara Hayward. Directed by Jordan Peele

Some movies seize on an idea and do their level best to expand on it, explore it or otherwise concentrate their efforts on that single idea. Of course, some movies don’t have aspirations even that lofty. Then, there are movies like Us that are ao layered with ideas that it’s hard to sort all of them out. That can be a double-edged sword.

As a young girl (Curry), Adelaide (Nyong’o) had a terrifying encounter in a mirror maze on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Now, as a married woman, her husband Gabe (Duke) is bringing her back to the scene of her greatest fear, and she’s uneasy about it. Along for the ride are her teenage daughter Zora (Joseph) and her younger son Jason (Alex).

They are joined at the seaside by their bickering friends Josh (Heidecker) and Kitty (Moss) as well as their prissy twin daughters Becca (C. Sheldon) and Lindsey (N. Sheldon). But more importantly, they are joined late that night by a startling and frightening appearance of their doppelgangers, who mean to replace them and take over their lives.

While ostensibly about a family’s fight for survival, there are all sorts of subtexts going on here – not full-on allegories, but more like suggestions of same. There’s some subtext about the difference between poverty and success and how thin that line can be; there’s subtext about racial politics in the late 2010s; there’s subtext about the inner battle we have with our own dark sides and there’s subtext about how we perceive our own identities and deal with our selves.

\Peele with only two movies (this and 2017’s Get Out) has become perhaps the pre-eminent horror director in America. He knows what frightens us, but more importantly, how to stage those fears to the very best advantage. The terror here is palpable and relatable, leading to a kind of stomach-churning feeling that this could be happening, right now, to you and you couldn’t do a damn thing about it. A good horror movie will affect you that way.

Much has been said about Lupita Nyong’o’s masterful performance here, I won’t add any more superlatives to that conversation – largely because other critics have already used them all up – but suffice to say that the most egregious snub at the most recent Oscars was the lack of a nomination for Nyong’o for her performance here. It is absolutely breathtaking.

Sometimes, you just want to have the bejezus scared out of you and this movie is absolutely perfect for the job. Although it does take perhaps a little too long to get rolling (particularly after a really unforgettable prologue), it takes one of those rare truly original ideas and does something spectacular with it. This is a can’t-miss for any self-respecting horror film fan and for serious cinephiles as well, and how often does that particular conjunction ever occur?

REASONS TO SEE: Scary in a gut-wrenching way. The concept is very original. Nyong’o gives a masterful performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Takes a bit too long to get going.
FAMILY VALUES: This is profanity, violence and images of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some filming took place at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, where The Lost Boys (1987) was also filmed; in fact, the Boardwalk has essentially remained unchanged since then.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Max, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews, Metacritic: 81/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Invasion of the Body Snatchers
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The fourth day of Six Days of Darkness.

Chop Chop (2020)


Live can’t come to the door, she’s all tied up.

(2020) Thriller (GravitasAtala Arce, Jake Taylor, David Harper, Mikael Mattsson, Jeremy Jordan, James McCabe, Mike Thompson, Nicholas Correnti, Natasha Missick, Lizzie Chaplin (voice), Jazmine Jordan, Theresa Byron, Emily Katter, Paul Syre, Mandy Martino. Directed by Rony Patel

 

Most couples appreciate the quiet evening home alone. Someone cooks dinner, maybe a movie (and microwave popcorn) out on the couch, and then to the bedroom for *ahem* the main course. Sounds like a pretty good night to me.

And that’s what Chuck (Taylor) and Liv (Arce) have in mind. Then, there’s a knock on the door. There’s a guy there named Teddy (Harper), delivering the pizza they ordered. Except, they didn’t order any pizza – Chuck made dinner, so Liv tells Teddy thanks but no thanks, and shuts the door, and goes back into the living room.

And that’s where she finds Teddy waiting for her. “I have abilities,” he says, almost modestly. He also has a bag of bloody severed heads. Now, that’s as promising a beginning for a movie as it gets, thinks I. Sadly, Chop Chop doesn’t quite live up to that early promise.

When Teddy attacks Liv, Chuck comes to the rescue and ends up killing Teddy. However, instead of calling the cops – technically, they were defending themselves which isn’t illegal, even in California – they decide to dispose of the body themselves, calling in some favors from some shady underworld types. When a cop (Jeremy Jordan) stumbles on what’s going on, the couple have to shove him in the trunk as well. And all these underworld sorts are, inexplicably, trying to kill Liv and Chuck. I mean, WTF, right?

Along the way, they meet all manner of killers and fend them off as best they can before they end up being captured and set up for torture…but by that point, you’ll be wondering why you’ve stayed with the movie even this long. The story is told in such an incomprehensible manner that you can be forgiven if you think that the chapter heading for the first scene, Teddy, actually refers to Chuck – it isn’t until a little later that you find out that Teddy was the dead serial killer. The one with abilities…that are never explained, or referred to. And let’s face it, Liv took them pretty much in stride. Do lots of people that she knows have abilities?

Another flaw of the film is that nearly all the action takes place off-camera, or is so brief as to be blink-and-you-missed-it. I’ll give Patel the benefit of the doubt and assume that was for budgetary reasons, but it may well be inexperience, or an attempt to set his thriller apart from the glut of them on the market. I will give him that the concept is solid.

However, he changes tone regularly to an almost maddening degree. The movie starts out as kind of a noir thriller, moves into a romantic comedy at one point, and then shimmies into torture porn at the end before finishing up as…well, that I’ll keep to myself. The really maddening thing is that there is a ton of potential here, but the decisions made by the person sitting in the director’s chair as well as the person at the laptop banging away the script (the same person, by the way) just about guaranteed the movie wouldn’t succeed. I think the movie could have worked as a kind of extreme action version of a noir Nick and Nora Charles-type of thing. That’s a movie I’d love to see – John Wick meets The Thin Man. Hollywood, get on that one, wouldja?

REASONS TO SEE: The concept is an intriguing one.
REASONS TO AVOID: Clumsy storytelling vies with questionable directorial decisions for the most damaging aspect to the film’s success.
FAMILY VALUES: This is plenty of violence and profanity, bloody images, some sexual content, and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature film debut for Patel, who was born in India but currently resides in Los Angeles.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Funny Games
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Day 3 of Six Days of Darkness!

The Witches (2020)


Someone itches to find some witches.

(2019) Family Horror Comedy (Warner BrothersAnne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Chris Rock (voice), Jahzir Bruno, Brian Bovell, Kristen Chenoweth (voice), Stanley Tucci, Charles Edwards, Morgana Robinson, Eugenia Caruso, Ashanti Prince-Asafo, Eurydice El-Etr, Orla O’Rourke, Codie-Lei Eastwick, Josette Simon, Joseph Zinyemba, Ana-Maria Maskell. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Most people remember author Roald Dahl for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach, but he also wrote a book called The Witches which back in 1990 was turned into a movie by director Nicholas Roeg. Thirty years later, a different Oscar-winning director takes a crack at it.

A young boy (Bruno) – whose name we never know but is referred to in the credits as “Hero Boy” – is orphaned in a car crash and sent to live with his down-to-earth Grandma (Spencer) in Alabama. She is loving and hipper than most grandmas, dancing to the strains of the Four Tops’ “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” which sets the tone as definitely the late Sixties in a place where it wasn’t especially pleasant to be African-American.

Grandma as a young girl had discovered that witches are real – demonic creatures that masquerade as women but are actually completely bald, so they wear wigs that give them nasty rashes on their scalps; they also wear gloves because their hands possess only three fingers that end in razor-sharp claws. Their feet are square with a single toe, and their mouths are extra-wide and full of wickedly sharp teeth. When the grandson has an encounter with one in a store, Grandma realizes she can’t protect him and decides to take him on a vacation to a swanky hotel, where the witches can’t find him, right?

You see, witches also hate children with a passion, complaining that they are noisy (true), selfish (true) and smell like dog poo (wellllll…some do, some don’t). The Grand High Witch (Hathaway) who turned Grandma’s closest friend (Prince-Asafo) into a chicken, has a plan to rid the world of kids once and for all. She’s going to reveal her evil plan to her colleagues at a witches convention (disguised as a do-gooder organization dedicated to the welfare of children) – which as bad luck would have it, is taking place at the very hotel where Grandma and her charge have fled to.

More I will not reveal about the plot; if you’ve read the book, suffice to say that this version of it follows the plot of the literature pretty closely, certainly more so than the 1990 film. If you’re not familiar with it, then it’s best not to reveal too much because that will spoil the fun, and above all, that’s what this movie is – fun.

Hathaway chews the scenery with grand gusto, deliciously, delightful evil with a mock-Eastern European accent that makes her somehow even creepier. Much of her facial features and body has been redesigned digitally, giving her the look of a witch while remaining still recognizably Anne Hathaway. She camps it up quite a bit, but the role definitely calls for it, and Hathaway delivers. We sometimes forget that the woman is a fabulous actress who is capable of doing just about anything she wants to in front of the camera. Another reviewer posited that she was acting as a kind of surrogate Betsy DeVos, proclaiming she’s doing everything for the good of children while in reality she was out to cause harm to them, particularly those who are poor or members of minorities. That reviewer for Consequences of Sound wasn’t wrong, I think.

Spencer is a diametric opposite; she’s the loving, warm embrace that we need watching the boy suffer the loss of his parents, withdrawing into an uncaring shell; not eating, not engaging, not smiling ever. She gradually wins him over and brings him back to life, and those scenes early on in the film are among the best in the movie.

Zemeckis is a big believer in CGI and true to form, he employs a whole lot of it here. Some works, but there’s some that doesn’t. There are some talking mice in the movie that look awfully cartoonish, like they stepped out of a Looney Toon, and that doesn’t do the movie any favors.

The big question here is how appropriate is this movie for kids. Yes, it’s based on what is ostensibly a children’s book, but there are some scenes that are going to absolutely terrify the more impressionable wee ones in the house. Parents might want to give the movie a bit of a preview before determining if their kids have the maturity to handle it. Also, the first part of the movie concerns how the grandson deals with the death of his parents in a fairly realistic manner, which might also upset kids who are sensitive. Older kids, say into double digits on the age scale, or particularly mature young ‘uns should be able to handle this.

As mentioned in the Trivial Pursuit entry, this was supposed to be one of the fall tentpoles for Warner Brothers this year, but obviously COVID made the studio revert to Plan B. The movie recently debuted on HBO Max here in the States but in other countries that have handled the pandemic somewhat better than we have will be able to see it in theaters as soon as this weekend. Enjoy.

REASONS TO SEE: Outstanding performances by Hathaway and Spencer.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally too cute for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some mild profanity, some scary images and difficult thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally set for theatrical release in October, the release date was moved out due to the pandemic, until Warner Brothers decided to send it direct to streaming on its HBO Max service.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews, Metacritic: 46/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hocus Pocus
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness continues!

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

Midsommar


Even hippies can do horror!

(2019) Horror (A24Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Ellora Torchia, Archie Madekwe, Henrik Norlen, Gunnel Fred, Isabelle Grill, Agnes Rase, Julia Ragnarsson, Mats Blomgren, Lars Väringer, Anna Ǻström, Hampus Hallberg, Liv Mjönes, Louise Peterhoff, Katarina Weidhagen, Björn Andrésen, Rebecka Johnston. Directed by Ari Aster

Ari Aster, with just two films under his belt (his first being last year’s acclaimed Hereditary) has become in a short time one of the leading names in horror films. His newest is very different from his last…in fact, very different than any horror movie you’re likely to see.

A group of American grad students in anthropology take up an invitation from jovial Swedish student Pelle (V. Blomgren) to attend a summer festival in a small Swedish commune above the Arctic circle. Among those going is Dani (Pugh) who is still grieving from an unimaginable tragedy, and her self-absorbed boyfriend Christian (Reynor) who in fact has tired of her emotional neediness and is looking for a way out of the relationship. His pals Josh (Harper) and Mark (Poulter) are also not keen on having the fragile Dani along on their boys’ trip to the land of beautiful blondes.

Josh at least has the excuse that he’s writing his graduate thesis on the rituals and culture of the region but soon those rituals begin to take a sinister turn. Making all of them additionally crazy is the fact that the sun never really sets at that latitude at that time of the year. As the tension builds with each ritual growing more bizarre and bloodier than the last, it becomes clear that Dani has an important role to play – assuming she survives the nine-day festival.

Aster does a masterful job of building the tension, the feeling that all is not quite well here. While the movie does run a little bit long in my opinion – my attention began to wane near the end – you almost don’t mind because of the palpable sense of dread, interspersed with scenes of unexpected graphic and bloody violence.

While some have complained that the central relationship between Dani and Christian isn’t really fleshed out, I would argue that it doesn’t need to be. We know all we need to know and we can focus on the more meaty material within. Aster did a bang-up job on research and while the movie was filmed mostly in Hungary, it does a great job of conjuring up rural Scandinavia.

I don’t want to get into too much detail about what happens during the course of the film – the less you know, the more impact it will have – and giving it a more thorough review might well spoil some of the surprises therein. However, suffice to say that this is not only one of the best horror movies of the year, it is one of the best films of the year period. If you aren’t the squeamish sort, this is worth checking out.

REASONS TO SEE: A very creepy vibe. Clearly well-researched. Swedes are batshit crazy! Increases the “something is rotten in Sweden” tone exponentially.
REASONS TO AVOID: Just a little bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing images, ritualistic violence, graphic nudity, sexuality, brief drug use and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the Swedish spoken in the film is deliberately not subtitled, giving the audience the same set of isolation and confusion that the English-speaking characters must have felt.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wicker Man
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Day 4 of Six Days of Darkness!

Portals


I always thought the end of the world would come with giant floating cell phones.

(2019) Sci-Fi Horror (Screen MediaNeil Hopkins, Ptolemy Slocum, Deanna Russo, Ruby O’Donnell, Phet Mahathongdy, Paul McCarthy-Boyington, Gretchen Lodge, Georgina Blackledge, Keith Hudson, Sergio Martinez, Shellye Broughton, Michele Weaver, Reina Guthrie, Albert A. Vega, Clint Jung, Dare Emmanuel, Natasha Gott, Salvita Decorte. Directed by Gregg Hale, Liam O’Donnell, Eduardo Sanchez and Timo Tjahjanto

How will the world end? Will it be due to an outside agency, a passing meteor perhaps or a solar event? Or will we do it to ourselves, through our own hubris or in some misguided although earnest attempt to make things better? Portals posits that it will be both.

This anthology film has three segments, along with a prologue/epilogue sequence that initially begins as an interview segment with two of the scientists involved in an attempt to create a black hold here on earth, an incredibly dangerous idea that turns out to have unanticipated but bizarre consequences; it creates a worldwide blackout as the power grid is overloaded, followed by the appearance of mysterious monoliths that look like a combination of the rectangular objects from 2001: A Space Odyssey and giant cell phones.

These cell phones (complete with trippy light effects) turn out to be doorways that people can walk through, although not all people and with varying results for those who do. While most are terrified of these buzzing, humming portals, some are able to communicate with them telepathically and insist that their purpose is benign. Of course, that turns out to be not the case.

The three main segments involve a family fleeing during a mandatory evacuation; father Adam (Hopkins) drives his wife (Russo) and daughter (R. O’Donnell) to grandmother’s house, only to literally run into one of these portals on a lonely desert highway. This segment – which is interspersed throughout the film as a kind of linking narrative – then adjourns to a hospital where Adam is constantly told by a pair of doctors that he’s “lucky to be alive” and his repeated attempts to see his family go unheeded. He also has had one of his eyes replaced by a black orb similar to the material in the portals.

The second segment – co-directed by The Blair Witch Project’s Eduardo Sanchez – involves an overwhelmed call center during the height of the blackout. The various 911 operators cope in different ways, some terrified about their inability to reach their own families, others citing some sort of grand global conspiracy theory. When one of the portals appears in the call center, the conspiracy theorist (McCarthy-Boyington) gets it into his head that the people of the call center have to pass through the portal. Since they are reluctant to do it on their own, he pulls a gun (one wonders how he managed to get a gun into a call center that has an electronic locking system that keeps them trapped inside the center during the ordeal) and forces them to do it with, again, varying results.

The third segment begins a few minutes before the blackout begins in an underground parking garage in Djakarta where two sisters (Gott, Decorte) argue about each other’s life choices but once the blackout begins have a lot worse things to worry about – the sudden appearance of a portal and the attack of zombie-like Malaysians who insist on putting one of the sisters through the portal.

What are these portals? Where do they lead to? What is their purpose? Why are they here? What does it really matter anyway?

The film is pretty light on explanation, heavy on exposition and liberally laced with some fairly graphic bloody violence. Unlike most horror anthologies, the individual sequences are part of a larger story and while told out of chronological order, are about as well-linked as any anthology you’re ever likely to see. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that like most anthologies, the quality is fairly uneven. The garage-set sequence is pretty poorly acted and feels like it came from another film entirely; it is so out of step from the other sequences that it is almost jarring. For an anthology like this one to work, the stories have to integrate and that sequence does not. The call center and fleeing family sequences mesh much better together.

Gorehounds will be happy with exploding heads, face melting and eye gouging effects. The portals themselves are nicely done, even if they do look like giant cell phones. They convey an overt sense of menace, although I think the movie might have worked better if the intentions of the portals had been less discernible. The fact that the portals are malevolent works against the movie overall and if there was more of a vagueness as to whether the portals were benign or not (as happened with the call center sequence) it would have heightened the tension of the film, although I suppose that it would have made the zombies of the garage sequence a bit superfluous.

I liked the concept of the film, even if it didn’t make a whole lot of logical sense the way it was described. Also, the idea of forming artificial black holes is nonsensical; black holes are incredibly dangerous and would likely crush the planet the instant one formed. Why would a scientist deliberately try to create one, let alone a team of scientists? With all those people involved who understand physics at least to a certain extent, wouldn’t someone have objected?

Then again, it’s never a wise idea to look too deeply into logic when it comes to genre films. Your best bet is to just go with it and enjoy the film for what it is. While I don’t think this is going to go down as a perennial Halloween classic, it will at least give horror fans a little something different to consider.

REASONS TO SEE: The concept is intriguing.
REASONS TO AVOID: The execution isn’t quite there.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some gruesome images and some bloody violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was co-produced by the cinematic arm of the Bloody Disgusting website.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/26/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews: Metacritic: 26/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Devil’s Gate
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
From Shock to Awe