Dracula (1931)


Look into my eyes…

(1931) Horror (Universal) Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, Herbert Bunston, Frances Dade, Joan Standing, Charles Gerrard, Moon Carroll, Josephine Velez, Michael Visaroff, Cornelia Thaw, Geraldine Dvorak, Dorothy Tree, Barbara Bozoky, Anna Bakacs, Tod Browning (voice), John George, Wyndham Standing, Bunny Beatty. Directed by Tod Browning

As the silent era drew to a close and talkies became the “in” thing, Dracula – based on a stage play and not directly on Bram Stoker’s novel, although the play certainly used it as a starting point – became for Universal, the beginning of the studio’s long tenure as the monster studio. Together with Frankenstein which appeared later the same year, it became part of the one-two punch that would land legendary movie monsters like the Mummy, the Invisible Man and the Wolf Man at the studio and terrify generations of moviegoers and kids watching creature feature TV shows.

Real estate agent Renfield (Frye) goes to Transylvania to meet up with a client to close a leasing of property in London. The superstitious villagers warn him not to go to the Castle Dracula in the Carpathian Mountains, but he fails to heed their warnings and takes an unusual coach trip – a coach with no driver. Once at the castle, he meets Count Dracula (Lugosi) who turns out to be a man with a supernaturally intense gaze and a dislike of wine, which he never drinks. But the Count turns out to be more than a man – he is a vampire, the undead, as Renfield discovers too late – being driven mad and becoming the Count’s servant.

When the ship Renfield booked passage on returns to London, the horrible discovery is that the crew is all dead, there are a number of coffins aboard and only one survivor – Renfield, who is locked away in the asylum of Dr. Seward (Bunston). Seward’s daughter Mina (Chandler) is engaged to the handsome John Harker (Manners) and is close friends with Lucy Weston (Dade), a neighbor of the property the Count has leased. But the Count recognizes Lucy as a potential meal, and transforms her into a fellow vampire.

Fortunately, professional vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing (Van Sloan) arrives, in hot pursuit of the Count. He knows Dracula for what he is, and knows how to kill him. But can he and Harker possibly defeat a nearly immortal creature that has 500 years of experience in defeating foolish mortals like themselves?

This is a movie that is a classic in every sense of the word. The brooding, gothic sets; the wonderfully atmospheric cinematographer of Karl Freund, a German cinematographer who worked with F.W. Murnau on Metropolis and The Last Laugh and whom some credit with co-directing the movie, so important were his contributions. Browning chose to release the film without a score; music has since been added, but if you’ve ever seen a version without music, you’ve seen it as the director intended.

But what makes the movie is Lugosi. A Hungarian émigré, his English is heavily accented which would dog Lugosi throughout his career; however, the Eastern European lilt is perfect for the role as are Lugosi’s expressive eyes. Lugosi came from a theatrical background and often uses grand gestures in his performance here, a product of that background. That kind of thing was less noticeable back in the early sound era, when many stage actors were recruited for the talkies as silent actors often had voices that didn’t reproduce well (as with John Gilbert) or who gave stiff readings of their dialogue. The intensity of Lugosi’s performance here, though, is unquestioned and for nearly a century since the movie was released, is the performance most associated with the role, Christopher Lee and Frank Langella notwithstanding.

There are strong elements of melodrama in the screenplay, and Browning’s direction is often stiff and stagey, and for those reasons there are some who feel that the movie doesn’t hold up weel, but I disagree. Freund’s tracking shot as Renfield enters the castle is a breathtaking introduction to the Count, and the terrifying coach ride through the Carpathians is creepy even today. Not only is this a true Halloween classic and perhaps the ultimate Universal monster movie (credited with keeping the studio afloat through near-bankruptcy during the Depression), it is one of the most perfect adaptations of the Dracula legend ever. For all lovers of scary cinema, this is truly a must-see.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderfully atmospheric. A legendary performance by Lugosi. Classic in every sense of the word. Still spooky even by modern standards. Certain scenes still give me the heebie-jeebies.
REASONS TO AVOID: Might feel a bit quaint and dated for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is implied violence and sexuality, and some mild terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie began life as a Broadway play; Lugosi had originated the title role on the Great White Way and along with Van Sloan and Bunston, are the only actors to transition from the stage version to the screen.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Peacock, Redbox, Spectrum, TCM, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews; ;Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nosferatu
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Crutch

Monster Hunter


Just a couple of video game characters come to life.

(2020) Horror Action (Screen Gems) Milla Jovovich, Tony Jaa, Ron Perlman, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Diego Boneta, Meagan Good, Josh Helman, Jin Au-Yeung, Hirona Yamazaki, Jannik Schümann, Nanda Costa, Nic Rasenti, Clyde Berning, Paul Hampshire, Schelaine Bennett, Bart Fouche, Pope Jerrod, Aaron Beelner, Onur Besen, Adrian Muñoz. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

Video games are video games and movies are movies, and these are two worlds that have a very hard time co-existing. Video games based on movies tend to be awful, and movies based on video games tend to be the same. That’s because movies demand attention, patience and passivity, whereas video games demand participation, interaction and hand-eye co-ordination. The are meant for completely different audiences and require completely different disciplines to appreciate. Successful crossovers are rare indeed.

Which makes Anderson something of a national treasure because he has shown with the Resident Evil franchise that he can make entertaining movies out of a beloved game franchise. Capcom, the makers of the Resident Evil game, can be excused for turning to him to bring their second-most popular franchise to the big screen.

Lt. Natalie Artemis (Jovovich) leads the elite Alpha Team of U.S. Army Rangers into the desert to search for the slightly-less elite Bravo Team which has mysteriously disappeared. Quicker than you can say “plot device,” a mysterious portal (accompanied by an impressive CGI lightning storm) somehow transports the team into a parallel world, one inhabited by strange, vicious – and hungry – monsters. As they are attacked by the horned and deadly Black Diablos, they quickly realize that their arsenal isn’t nearly enough to take down the giant creatures and as they run for the comparative safety of the rocks, they discover to their horror that the safety is an illusion as the rocks are inhabited by giant spider-like things. The team is decimated, leaving only Artemis alive and that only because she is rescued by the Hunter (Jaa), whom we first met in the pre-credits sequence that is perhaps the most impressive moment in the film.

The two form an uneasy alliance, trying to survive in a world for which the word “hostile” doesn’t even begin to describe. They are eventually picked up by a sand galleon, a kind of floating pirate ship captained by the Admiral (Perlman) who delivers a fair amount of exposition, and explains that both their worlds are in danger and they must head to the Dark Tower in Mordor…no, that’s not quite right. But it’s a dark tower nevertheless.

This is the kind of role that is right in the wheelhouse for Jovovich and she dutifully knocks it out of the park. Her chemistry with Jaa is surprisingly strong, considering that the two characters speak different languages. I would have wished that Jaa got more opportunities to show off his martial arts skills, which are considerable, but he makes the most of the opportunities he does get.

Perlman is always a welcome sight in any film, even if he is wearing a giggle-inducing wig that they probably had to pay him a bundle to wear with a straight face. Fortunately, it is the monsters that are the stars here. Fans of the game will recognize them and we get a good idea of their scale here throughout. We get a few more in the third act of the film, including the Meowscular Chef (who is, as advertised, absolutely ripped) but the filmmakers have the luxury of several hundred to choose from through the seven (and counting) main games and the plethora of spin-offs.

Do you need to know something about the franchise to enjoy the movie? That is always the question in video game adaptations. Like most adaptations, fans will find it easier to understand than non-fans, and in this case, I think it’s almost imperative you have at least a general knowledge of the game to follow the plot.  Fans, though, might find it a bit too simplistic for their tastes; it is, after all, like starting at the beginning of the first game for the first time. That may not be of interest to gamers in general.

Don’t get me wrong; you don’t have to be a fan of the game to enjoy the ride here. The monsters are as I said incredible, Jovovich and Jaa make a great team and if you can get past the mid-movie exposition dump that helps catch you up (if you know nothing about the game) but unfortunately causes the movie to come to a screeching halt, you should be pretty much okay. This isn’t horror that is essential, nor is it one of the better cinematic adaptations of a video game out there, but it is nonetheless a decent enough one and worth a look if you’re looking for a bit of fun, visceral and essentially mindless entertainment.

REASONS TO SEE: The monsters are mega-impressive.
REASONS TO AVOID: A muddled plot that isn’t easy to follow without some knowledge of the game.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, creature-induced terror and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the seventh movie based on a video game that Jovovich has appeared in, six of them with her husband Paul W.S. Anderson involved as writer and/or director.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews; Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pitch Black
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness Concludes with a Classic!

A Quiet Place Part II


There is no hiding when you can’t make a sound.

(2020) Sci-Fi Horror (Paramount) Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Cillian Murphy, Djimon Hounsou, Okieriete Onaodowan, Scoot McNairy, Zachary Golinger, Blake DeLong, Stefanie Warwick, Alycia Ripley, Cristalis Bonilla, Domonic Taggart, Silas Pereira-Olson, Alice Malyukova, Ashley Dyke, Dean Woodward, Barbara Singer, Michaela Juliann Pace. Directed by John Krasinski

 

After theaters began to reopen this past spring, one of the first blockbusters to return was this sequel to the surprise hit by former Office star Krasinski. It was kind of an appropriate choice; social distancing was still very much in force, and the forced isolation of the survivors in the film mirrored that which all of us went through – and are still going through, in some cases.

The movie begins with a flashback to the first day of the alien invasion. Krasinski as Lee Abbott appears here as he copes with the first appearance of the aliens, trying to protect his son Marcus (Jupe) as he tries to find his wife Evelyn (Blunt) who is with their deaf daughter Regan (Simmonds). It’s a harrowing scene full of noise and terror.

Then we return to the place where the first film ended, 473 days afterwards, with the survivors of the Abbott family leaving their flooded and burned out homestead. With a newborn baby to carry – newborns aren’t noted for their silence – it is a journey fraught with danger as the family try to apply their hard-won knowledge, including the means of killing the creature, something that they didn’t have earlier. They run into a trap set by one of their former neighbors, Emmett (Murphy) who has been through a hell of his own, but he at least has a sanctuary – a soundproof furnace in an industrial plant. The problem with it is that if you wait too long inside it, you run the risk of suffocating. By this time Marcus has been badly injured, an Evelyn needs to go into town and find medicine which he desperately needs. Regan has struck out on her own and Emmett agrees to go after her, but the two end up running into the sort of humans that would survive an alien apocalypse and find their way to an island which is cut off from the mainland – and the aliens. They need to go back and get Evelyn, Marcus and the baby…and the aliens have also unfortunately discovered away to do some hunting on the island…

Fans of the first film will notice the diminished role that Krasinski plays here, and the movie is less because of it. On the plus side, though, Simmonds blossoms here, making this a showcase role for her. Blunt remains steadfast, but as with the first movie she is not utilized as well as she might be. Murphy is one of those actors who does a good job every time out but doesn’t get enough credit for it, and he is definitely a high point here.

The best thing about the movie is the aliens themselves. Their design is absolutely marvelous, a picture of logic and aggressive behavior. They make perfect movie monsters. Hardcore horror fans will notice that the gore is pretty minimal here, which may irritate some. Of more concern are some of the plot holes that make no sense. The Abbotts, for example seem to have an unlimited supply of batteries. Where are they getting them?

Nonetheless, this is one of those horror films that keeps the tension high throughout. Thanks to outstanding performances by Murphy, Blunt and in particular Simmonds, it is easy to invest emotionally in the main characters. It was a fitting return of movies to the theaters and it’s getting a re-release in some markets even as we speak. Definitely worth seeking out, whether on VOD, streaming on Paramount Plus or in theaters.

REASONS TO SEE: Simmonds does a crackerjack job. Superb creature design.
REASONS TO AVOID: Suffers from Krasinski’s absence. A few general plot holes.
FAMILY VALUES:There is violence a’plenty, some bloody and/or disgusting images, and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made it’s New York premiere date but the COVID outbreak caused its general release to be postponed almost a year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Alamo On Demand, Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Paramount Plus, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch As of 10/29/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; Metacritic: 71/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Signs
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The penultimate entry in this year’s Six Days of Darkness!

The Invisible Man (2020)


Don’t look now…

(2020) Thriller (Universal) Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Harriet Dyer, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Michael Dorman, Benedict Hardie, Renee Lim, Brian Meegan, Nick Kici, Vivienne Greer, Nicholas Hope, Cleave Williams, Cardwell Lynch, Sam Smith, Zara Michales, Serag Mohammed, Nash Edgerton, Anthony Brandon Wong, Xavier Fernandez, Amali Golden. Directed by Leigh Whannell

 

One of the unexpected side effects of #MeToo is that women are beginning to take back horror. Until recently, they were cast mostly as victims waiting to be slaughtered by a monster or a human monster. Yes, the final girl thing was a bit of a sop, but it was clearly understood that putting women in jeopardy had a sexual element to it. Horror films were often an allegory for how women were perceived in our culture; virtuous and plucky (final girls were almost never sexual) or sexy and not too bright, or at least prone to panicking when the chips were down, playing right into the killer’s hands – often literally.

That’s changing, as yesterday’s horror review illustrated, and it’s even more true of this film, inspired VERY loosely by the 1897 novel of H.G. Wells. Cecilia Kass (Moss) is trapped in an abusive relationship by a controlling billionaire who keeps her under 24/7 surveillance. Pushed to her absolute limit, she plots her escape, aided by her sister Emily (Dyer) who picks her up when she flees from the high-tech home she shares with her domestic partner Adrian Griffin (Jackson-Cohen), just barely getting away. Emily drives her into San Francisco where she bunks with her good friend James (Hodge), who happens to be a cop, and his teenage daughter Sydney (Reid).

Then word reaches her that her ex has committed suicide, and his creepy brother Tom (Dorman) gives her the news that he left her a sizable inheritance, enough to help Sydney with her college plans and to give her some financial relief. Too good to be true, right?

Right. Soon strange things begin to happen, merely annoying at first and growing exponentially more disturbing. Cecilia gets the feeling she’s being watched, and her paranoia only increases. Soon she seems to be coming unhinged, unglued, or at the very least, having a complete breakdown. But WE know that there is something else going on. After all, we saw that knife floating around by itself. We saw the footprints in the carpet. Is it Adrian’s ghost, or something more tangible – and ultimately more terrifying?

As horror films go, this one is long on tension but short on scares. In fact, I think it would be justifiably be considered more of a thriller than an out-and-out horror film, although there are definitely some horrific elements – they are just few and far between.

Whannell seems more intent on making a point than creating a legitimately scary movie. Fortunately, he has one of the best in the world at playing emotionally fragile characters in Elisabeth Moss (who will always be Zoey Bartlet to me) and she gets to exercise that particular skill to near-perfection here. She is certain that something sinister is going on and tells her circle of friends so, but nobody believes her. It’s no accident that her last name is Kass…could be short for “Cassandra.”

She gets some good support from Hodge (who will always be Alec Hardison to me) as the kindly but skeptical cop and Reid (who will always be Meg Murry to me) as the savvy teen. Dorman (who will always be John Tavner to me) lends sufficient creepiness as the late tech billionaire’s brother.

Part of the problem is that we don’t get much of a sense of who Adrian is. He’s essentially brilliant, vindictive and cruel, but we never really get to know much more than that. I tend to like a little more depth to my villains, even if they are ostensibly dead for most of the movie. Plus, there are few scares and that is a bit of a letdown, considering Whannell’s pedigree (he has been involved with two major horror franchises) and the fact that this is using the title of a classic horror movie. The audience can’t help but expect a horror movie when they sit down to watch.

Jilted expectations aside, the movie does a fair job of making its points about how women are portrayed, and although at times Moss can get a bit shrill she still makes a decent enough heroine, particularly in the mega-satisfying denouement. However, I can’t honestly say that the movie made a connection with me and thus I can’t in good conscience give it anything more than a very slight recommendation which is being damned by faint praise indeed.

REASONS TO SEE: Nobody is better than Moss than getting women on the edge of hysteria.
REASONS TO AVOID: The villain was not really developed properly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some pretty intense violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was originally intended to be part of the Dark Universe, Universal’s classic monster-oriented shared cinematic universe, but after the box office failure of The Mummy, the concept collapsed and Universal opted to go with individual stories rather than having a shared background.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Cinemax Go, DirecTV, Google Play, HBO Max, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hollow Man
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Continuing Adventures of Six Days of Darkness!

Black Christmas (2019)


Snow angels aren’t necessarily a good thing when there’s a killer on the loose.

(2019) Horror (Blumhouse/Universal) Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady, Caleb Eberhardt, Cary Elwes, Simon Mead, Madeleine Adams, Nathalie Morris, Ben Black, Zoë Robins, Ryan McIntyre, Mark Nelson, Jonny McBride, Lucy Currey. Directed by Sophia Takal

 

In the #MeToo era when we are beginning to turn away from tropes and customs that have proven to be historically damaging to women and that have contributed to a culture of rape and toxic masculinity, it is interesting to consider what remakes of classic slasher films would look like through that lens. Now, wonder no longer.

As Hawthorn College approaches the winter break, sorority sister Riley (Poots) – a quiet girl who had been sexually assaulted three years earlier by a member of a frat – prepares to celebrate the holidays with her sisters in the Mu Kappa Epsilon sorority; activist/feminist Kris (Shannon) who politicizes absolutely everything – student/athlete Marty (Donoghue) and sweet-natured Jesse (O’Grady). As their sisters head home for the holidays, there’s a bit of tension as the girls perform a pointed song at a notorious talent show at their brother fraternity DKO that holds their feet to the fire for their antics. This doesn’t sit well, to say the least.

Meanwhile, young Lindsay (Currey) is stalked by a masked figure while walking home in the dark on a well-lit street. Let’s just say Lindsay won’t be opening any presents this year. And as the girls are stalked and murdered one by one, the rush to find out who is behind the disappearances of the girls with no help from the campus police, who are sure the girls have taken off to be with boyfriends, is a life-or-death venture.

Takal, who co-wrote the script with April Wolfe, inspired by the 1974 original (which was also remade in 2006), has given the film a definite feminist slant which may make a certain segment of horror fans a bit uncomfortable. The tone can get strident at time, but it brings up some salient points about the portrayal of women as targets. The problem, though, is that in pointing out the inherent misogyny of slasher films, they utilize the trope of attractive young women being stalked and terrorized before being slaughtered. It seems at best a bit cynical and at worst pandering to the core demographic of horror movies. They seem to be defeating their own purpose.

That said, Takal made sure that the film trimmed enough to receive a PG-13 rating in order to appeal to young women who might not necessarily be horror film fans, but this is something of a tactical mistake. The movie lacks any kind of edge or bite that a little gore might have provided. It is curiously bloodless; a co-ed who’d been stabbed through the chest with an icicle and is then dragged through the snow leaving a kind of macabre snow angel behind her, bleeds not at all. That doesn’t fly. It doesn’t help matters that none of the murders are particularly inventive, contributing to the film’s overall blandness.

The movie is a bit of a hot mess – the introduction of a supernatural element in the denouement is unwelcome and a bit of a cop-out – but there are some fine actresses here, even if their characters aren’t particularly well-fleshed out. The dialogue also sounds a lot like conversations college-aged women might have – ot that I’m privy to any conversations of college-aged women. This is a horror movie whose heart is in the right place, but is ultimately failed by poor execution.

REASONS TO SEE: Points for taking on the patriarchy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretty much standard slasher fare.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of violence, sexual content, profanity, teen drinking, and a plot element involving a sexual assault.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The address of the sorority house is 1974 Elm Road, a reference to the year the original Black Christmas came out.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, HBO Max, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews; Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sorority House Massacre
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness in yo’ face!

Halloween Kills


For Michael Myers, Hell is home.

(2021) Horror (Blumhouse) Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle, Airon Armstrong, Will Patton, Thomas Mann, Jim Cummings, Dylan Arnold, Robert Longstreet, Anthony Michael Hall, Charles Cyphers, Scott MacArthur, Michael McDonald, Ross Bacon, Kyle Richards, Nancy Stephens, Diva Tyler. Directed by David Gordon Green

 

Of the iconic screen horror slashers, only Leatherface predates Michael Myers, who made his first appearance in the 1978 classic Halloween. Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Chucky and Jigsaw all followed in his bootsteps. But forty years have elapsed since his first appearance and Michael is getting a bit long in the tooth, right?

The movie picks up immediately where 2018’s acclaimed reboot left off. Michael (Courtney) has been left to die in the basement of a burning house. Laurie Strode (Curtis), his sister and the babysitter he went after back in 1978, is being rushed to the hospital with abdominal stab wounds. Officer Hawkins (Patton) is on his way there, bleeding from a stab wound in the neck.

But as firefighters battle the blaze, they discover the one cardinal rule of any horror franchise; the killer isn’t quite dead yet. Michael emerges from the flames and immediately takes out a fire brigade, then exits stage left to commit more mayhem, ostensibly to people both random and convenient. He does have a bit of a plan – to go to his old house, currently occupied by gay couple Big John (MacArthur) and Little John (McDonald) who have tastefully decorated the old homestead which means they are due to be shish kabobbed.

At a Haddonfield bar, Tommy Doyle (Hall) shares his recollections of that fateful night. He was the boy Laurie was babysitting, and the night has left him scarred for life. So he doesn’t react well when the news arrives that Michael is still on the loose. Tommy organizes a lynch mob and leads them into the streets to find Michael, chanting ‘Evil dies tonight,” which makes a mighty fine tagline for a movie poster. It turns out to be the most incompetent mob in history, although I do wonder if there’s any such thing as a “competent mob.”

While Laurie’s daughter Karen (Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Matichak) fret over telling Laurie that the boogeyman still lives, they both grieve for the departed in their own way (Greer has a particularly poignant scene early on in which she washes blood from her hands, scrubbing around her wedding ring). In the meantime, the body count grows and the mob howls for blood (although they occasionally seem to be pointed at the wrong Michael Myers), will a united mob be able to finally put Michael down…or will this Halloween continue unabated?

Well, considering there’s another sequel in the works for next October, I think you can do the math. This is clearly the middle chapter in a trilogy and it has a feel of non-resolution to it. The ending is supposed to be a bit of a shocker (and it is), but what precedes it is a series of kill scenes that really don’t show a ton of originality or flair, with few exceptions (one of the firemen gets eviscerated by his own saw). While Green’s 2018 reboot showed how the 1978 murders affected Strode and her family, the sequel expands to show how it affected all of Haddonfield. That’s admirable, and I think it provides a little social commentary at how deeply stressed out the country has become, but I don’t think that the mob is supposed to be a stand-in for the Capitol insurrection mob. That seems to be a bit of a stretch to me.

The problem with Halloween Kills is a lack of imagination. Forty-odd years on after John Carpenter yelled “action,” slasher movies have run their course and there isn’t a lot of ways to slice and dice a human body. It becomes predictable – and that’s the last thing you want a horror movie to be. Sure, there are plenty of kids who may be new to the genre who might be impressed, but I would be surprised if they hadn’t already seen the classic slasher films by this point and to be fair, this doesn’t compete well with them. It does have its moments, and Jamie Lee Curtis is always a welcome name on a marquee, but she really doesn’t get to do very much, leaving Greer, Patton, Matichak and Hall to do most of the heavy lifting and they do it with varying degrees of success.

So the long and the short of it is that Halloween Kills doesn’t measure up even to the 2018 predecessor. That’s a shame because I can see what the filmmakers were going for; they just didn’t quite get there.

REASONS TO SEE: A respectable attempt to provide some social commentary on the state of things, 2021.
REASONS TO AVOID: A real letdown after the 2018 reboot.
FAMILY VALUES: As you would expect, there’s a ton of violence (much of it gory), some grisly images, a fair amount of profanity and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With her appearance here as Laurie Strode (her sixth), Jamie Lee Curtis passes Donald Pleasance for the most appearances in the franchise as the same character – he appeared five times as Dr. Loomis. The Dr. Loomis who appears in the flashback sequences here is played by Tom Jones Jr., with the voice supplied by Colin Mahan. Pleasance passed away in 1995.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Peacock
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews; Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Halloween H20: 20 Years Later
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness, the Sequel!

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!