More of a bonbon for cinephiles than a slasher contraption for the masses, Nia DaCosta’s Candyman (B+) builds on producer Jordan Peele’s recent masterworks to expose horrors of the American race and class struggle. Her uncanny Chicago-set narrative about appropriation and gentrification focuses primarily on razor-focused actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen, who plays an artist obsessed with a new subject based on the urban legend of a hook-armed killer bearing sweets who once haunted the city’s projects. The talented Teyonah Parris provides a formidable foil as his partner, an art gallery executive trying to remain above the fray of mysterious mounting events. The ubiquitous Colman Domingo is also effective in a small role. The cinematography, music and menace are straight out of a Hitchcock or Kubrick composition, providing the typical tenets of the horror genre with a considerable upscale upgrade. The labyrinthine honeycomb of this only slightly supernatural take on the Windy City, filled with swirling bees, fun house mirrors, eerie incantations and blood dripping like honey through nooks and hallways, becomes an apt metaphor for twists to come. There are few extended sequences of gore or fan favorite jump scares; instead there is a gradual unveiling of themes and origin stories to stimulate the mind and provide a deeper sense of unsettling. Watch the color palette for clues, and enjoy creative montages including shadow puppets for clever insights into the backstory. DaCosta is all sting as she goes in for both the message and the kill, and if there were one constructive criticism to offer an already pensive film, it would be that it needed even more character development and nuance so that personal transformations could fire with additional intensity. DaCosta’s film is strong and beguiling, and it could become one of those unsuspecting art films to mysteriously rule the box office.
This summer writer/director M. Night Shyamalan invites you to his private coastal paradise for a reverse-Cocoon Geriatric Park with the potential to push every Benjamin Button of your patience. The film Old (D) is a disorienting suspense thriller with about one and a half intriguing ideas very poorly executed including the notion of accelerated aging as a plot device and its effect on a bevy of unsuspecting vacationers. The ensemble including the talented Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps and Rufus Sewell seems as adrift as the viewers in this filmmaker’s typical parade of nonsense followed by final act reveals. Without a clear protagonist and in some cases with the same characters played by multiple actors, this seaside spectacle is a cacophonous cavalcade for most of its duration. Shyamalan can occasionally stage an interesting action sequence or a supernatural Twilight Zone-esque twist, and it’s a game attempt at terror in the daylight, but he neither nails the play nor the payoff this time around. After a few films of creative redemption since his lowest point with the waterlogged Lady in the Water, the director’s latest aquatic fare is to be avoided like a Baby Ruth in the country club swimming pool.
It’s the family friendly horror film franchise that’s just as much fun with the mute button on, and its sonic release in theatres after a year of pandemic may be the ultimate gimmick that amps up the tension even more. Director John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place Part II (B+) expands on the suspenseful milieu of its predecessor and pulls back the lens from one small town family on its homestead farm to a bit more about their actions’ implications on a struggling post-apocalyptic society around them. In this dystopian future world inhabited by blind monsters with an acute sense of hearing, Emily Blunt’s character tries to stealthily hold her family – including a newborn – together despite a splintering side quest led by her feisty daughter, played with aplomb by Millicent Simmonds. A mysterious new character played by a winning Cillian Murphy plus expressive teen Noah Jupe both stoke the kindling of several plot paths along the journey, and Krasinski consistently builds both mounting anxiety and the pulses of familial emotion. The novelty of the original film is dialed down this time around in lieu of world building, and regrettably Blunt’s character is a bit defanged but there’s enough fresh material to keep audiences on the edges of their seat. Overall it’s an effective thriller broadening its exciting universe with deeply relatable characters. Sure there are jump scares, but the biggest surprise is just how well crafted this sequel is and how much it justifies its existence.
Talk about a son possessed – and often obsessed – with the topics fascinating his famous father! Director Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor (B) follows in the footsteps of his filmmaker dad David Cronenberg, with both men specializing in intellectual tales of psychological trauma played out against the human body as a bloody and phantasmagoric canvas. Expect rage and repercussions. Andrea Riseborough is ostensibly the star of the film although her character is largely inhabiting the mind and body of Christopher Abbott, who gets the real juicy part, in a film that also features Sean Bean and Jennifer Jason Leigh in effective small parts. The plot involves assassinations carried out through a diabolical mind control process, but it’s largely style over substance as memories and intentions collide in some epic suspense showdowns. Wall to wall with hallucinogenic imagery and graphic violence, the film is catnip for fans of thriller and horror genres. The set-up is strong, set pieces superb and stakes high throughout. The film can’t quite bear the weight of both its protagonist and parasite, but it’s boldly audacious nonetheless. The auteurist apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and it’s rotten to the core in the best possible way.
The ambitious Aneesh Cheganty, who directed the elegant and engaging cyber-mystery Searching, loses steam in the sprint of his sophomore effort, Run (C+), a decent PG-13 starter horror movie for tweens but hardly new territory for anyone else who has seen a feature film before. The timing is pretty prescient for a lockdown thriller, but the result here is muted and mixed. Run is greatly enhanced by the presence of glorious newcomer Kiera Allen, an intuitive and expressive actress whose home schooled character is confined to a wheelchair while living with a controlling mom played with campy ferocity by Sarah Paulson. Much of the mystery revolves around this relatable heroine finding out facts while her mother is away for very brief spells, which is a taut and terrifying device until it is not. A fairly mesmerizing first act devolves pretty rapidly thanks to some far-fetched plot devices and surprises you can anticipate without a doubt at each corner. Allen’s character is so ingenious most of the time that it’s a wonder she gets thwarted Coyote and Road Runner style as many times as she does when the screenplay needs to level the playing field. See Ma, Misery or the original Carrie for a far more absorbing take on this type of “crazy lady in the cabin in the woods” material. It’s never a good sign when you say to yourself, “Well, I guess this could be seen in a way as a guilty pleasure.” Cheganty is a talented director undone in this case by a script that doesn’t measure up. He earns his steps for most of the effort but stumbles when it matters most.
The audacity of a far-fetched plot in the latest remake of The Invisible Man (B) all but vanishes under the steady direction of Leigh Whannell and spellbinding central performance of Elisabeth Moss. The H.G. Wells story and classic films have been modernized with a strong woman at the center and a streamlined narrative about recovering from manipulation and abuse. Aldis Hodge is also fantastic as the heroine’s policeman friend; and while his role is somewhat “transparent,” Oliver Jackson-Cohen makes an impression in the title role, a controlling husband and Silicon Valley magnate who has invented an optical illusion suit allowing him to be fully invisible. The film is more thriller than horror film, despite the sense of dread in its first half. The stunts and visual effects are pretty nifty, and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is sufficiently macabre, with ostinati aplenty. The film was a little too much like 1991’s Sleeping with the Enemy at times, but the twists and turns dialed up the novelty. Moss, who is seen in virtually every scene, delivers richly here and makes the entire enterprise fresh and believable. It’s nice to see popular entertainment with a smidgen of topicality so wonderfully packaged.
All the clamor over the hush of forbidden, guilty secrets really puts the SH… in this IT. Andy Muschietti’s bloated follow-up to his adaptation of the childhood passages of Stephen King’s nostalgic ode to overcoming what scares you is overlong, not remotely frightening, full of half-baked creature effects, sloppily paced and only occasionally charming due to the assets of select cast members. It Chapter Two (C-) flash forwards a quarter century to showcase the “Losers Club” kids all grown up facing off again with evil, especially embodied in Pennywise the Clown. In the body count of who vanquishes themselves as actors in the FX-covered ensemble, Bill Hader and Jay Ryan are a delight, Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy are underwhelming, James Ransone is a mixed bag and Isaiah Mustafa does his role no favors. Most of the characters have been haunted in some way since they became Derry free, but reuniting in the small town brings back all the feels. The film too often flashes back to events in or adjacent to the prior film, and it just feels like a retread. The present danger isn’t particularly menacing, and the adults seem rather casual for a good bit in following the tedious rules of stopping evil in its tracks. The showdown is evocative of the ’80s mainly due to feeling like a neverending story. The much-heralded clown is a bit incidental this time around. The last five minutes are quite nice.
The venerable Burning Man Festival has nothing on the art house stylings of Ari Aster’s Midsommar (B-), in which a group of Americans including Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor and Will Poulter visit the fictional Swedish commune of Hårga for what detours into the realms of hallucinogenic revenge fantasy. This curiosity, buoyed by eat/prey/love storyline stanzas, is more trippy than terrifying and more symbolic than satisfying. The highly effective Pugh plays a complex woman recovering from family tragedy and talented Reynor her overwhelmed lover. Their date with destination goes a bit far afield; and despite the generous running time, it rarely is uninteresting. Poulter is delightful comic relief as the friends find themselves drawn deeper into the shocking traditions of the countryside cult. But the film peaks early and can’t quite maintain its sense of mystery and dread. One of the film’s winning gimmicks is that most of the horrors happen in broad daylight in a setting that stays sunny. But only the most daring or devilish moviegoers will revel in the film’s bonkers final act. Applause for the intellectual take on the horror genre and the creation of an original world; but it ultimately needs a little more seasoning.
There’s more pleasure than guilt in enjoying this guilty pleasure as director Tate Taylor collaborates with Octavia Spencer, his muse from The Help, for a memorable, against-type, unhinged performance in the psychological thriller Ma (B). When a lonely veterinary assistant starts opening her basement to a quartet of partying teens, it becomes clear something sinister is afoot in her drug and alcohol crazed makeshift speakeasy. In the spirit of Misery, Carrie or One Hour Photo, there’s a disturbing backstory to the central character’s plight and a method to the madness. Spencer nails the macabre mood swings of a character who longs to fit in with the in-crowd, and she brandishes a smartphone and ruthless cunning as weapons of choice. For every routine resolution, there’s also a disturbing detour, including some surprising props and prosthetics; and the sometimes preposterous story works as perverse entertainment largely because of the subversive nature of Spencer’s unflinching presence. The film practically begs for the call-back, “No. She. Did Not.” The teen actors including Diana Silvers and Gianni Paolo are authentic and engaging, and so are Spencer’s contemporaries including Luke Evans, Allison Janney and Juliette Lewis, the latter of whom has some satisfying echoes of her Cape Fear role. The chocolate icebox pie Taylor and Spencer served eight years ago has aged into a new mocha bonbon, a dish of revenge served cold by a woman scorned. By the time the film reaches its delicious denouement, you may find yourself grinning from the thrill and audacity of it all.
Anyone who’s ever fantasized about having a twin has probably not seen many horror movies, because doppelgänger-dom is typically hell one earth when your double turns out to be trouble. In telling the suspenseful story of a privileged family facing off with unfortunate duplicate “others,” Jordan Peele’s Us (B+) peels back lots of layers about Modern America and reveals a complex and fascinating motion picture experience. The terror – set largely in West coast enclaves near a lake and a beach amusement park – is taut and the tone of unease singularly stirring, but the imaginative writer/director overreaches at times in his ambition to top Get Out with this unsettling sophomore effort. Lupita Nyong’o is simply fabulous in two distinct and challenging performances, but the problem with all the players is that allegorical characters aren’t that fundamentally interesting. Winston Duke doesn’t fare quite as well with a ho-hum husband character who can only be described as not wearing the pants much, literally or figuratively. Peele’s parade of timely topics spans from red state politics to the digital divide, from defanged authority figures to upper class malaise as clones endeavor to claw their way into the mainstream. A viewer could enjoy the fresh and breathless action without absorbing all the creative points of view the auteur is trying to convey. Ultimately although everything doesn’t add up in this creative piece of speculative fiction, film fans and horror enthusiasts will relish the journey. Peele’s undeniable style and subversive commentary about a country of haves and have nots is sly and smart.
The showdown between masked man Michael Myers and scream queen Laurie Strode has the epic makings of another Thrilla in Manila, and the roar of the hype can be cut with a knife and underscored with creepy synthesizers. David Gordon Green’s 2018 film Halloween (B) is a direct sequel to John Carpenter’s original same-named 1978 horror film, ignoring previous follow-ups, plot twists, remakes, reveals and reruns to simply pit boogeyman versus basket case all these years later. Think of nearly all that came after the original film including another 1981 direct sequel with Skywalker-level familial revelations as a long Bobby Ewing fever dream that showered the studios with lots of money for forty years. Jamie Lee Curtis’s paranoid protagonist has evolved from teen babysitter victim to gun-toting survivalist with an armored home and bunker suitable for either Y2K programming issues or cold-blooded intruders. Green paces the film nicely with a framing device of podcasters visiting the heartland scene of the crime and lightly explores the post-trauma domestic dramas inflicted on Laurie, especially with her distressed daughter played well by Judy Greer. Curtis gets a nice showpiece, and she’s a joy returning to the role that birthed her star. The gore and mayhem almost seem old-fashioned compared to more industrial strength torture porn of late, so it’s a horror film to be enjoyed and absorbed my multi-generational masses. There are ample slashes, shocks and scares plus some amusing characters in the ensemble but nothing extraordinarily breakthrough. It’s not quite a scary as expected, but the biggest trick and treat is it’s an entertaining throwback.
Ari Aster’s suspense drama Hereditary (B+) is a stunner, upending many expectations of typical horror movies for something even more raw: delving into the experience of losing loved ones, exploring compartmentalization of pain and unearthing abnormalities lurking in one’s family tree. The film deserves comparisons with The Shining and The Exorcist and showcases a master performance by Toni Collette as the troubled mother of two (Milly Shapiro and Alex Wolff, really effective). Gabriel Byrne is ho-hum as the family dad (someone needed to be the straight man, I suppose), and Ann Dowd is superb as a neighbor in grief. The film is a slow-burn downer of the first order but splendidly cinematic, and it builds to quite a crescendo. The production values, from art direction to music, build a brooding mood. The film relies heavily on Collette to sell some far-fetched sequences of spiritualism and to take her character way out on a limb. She delivers in spades. From the first moments set in miniature dollhouses to an epic denouement, the film gets bigger in its ambitions. Fans of the original Friday the 13th may even find echoes in its origin story. This is recommended for aficionados of great drama, and I hope horror fans will like it too.