Texting is vexing, words are blunt instruments and smartphones illuminate the unexpected in Halina Reijn’s dark comic horror movie Bodies Bodies Bodies (C+). This meta whodunit featuring a quintet of Gen Z actresses playing wealthy semi-strangers engaged in hardcore house-partying trades magnifying glasses for digital devices to examine a killing spree. The film, with its land grab of lewd lexicon and triggering aplenty, feels oddly hatched in a sassy sociology class. Reijn is fixated on allegory over actual scares while uncovering the carapace and contradiction among women of gentle demeanor becoming merciless in an Insta. Amandla Stenberg and Maria Bakalava seize some of the best acting moments, and Pete Davidson is a riot as a slacker and truth teller. The film’s most distinctive features are its lighting and cinematography, exploring a gleefully glowing aesthetic in the increasingly dark domicile. Whether the ensemble is intended to be the object of affection or ridicule, the group is fairly unlikable, which can distance the viewers from caring deeply. Despite some occasionally curious satirical ideas, this movie is hardly more frightening than a wi-fi outage.
Those harboring horror film history will have a sixth sense of what you get when it’s Kevin Bacon plus sleepaway camp: it’s not a lucky day for the teen participants. John Logan’s new film They/Them (B) is pronounced “they slash them,” and although it’s sometimes more effective as social commentary than horror movie, it’s often a riveting and surprisingly sensitive psychological adventure. Theo Germaine is absorbing as the non-binary protagonist in a talented LGBTQ ensemble, with Anna Chlumsky and Carrie Preston among the standout counselors at an outdoor conversion camp further complicated by the presence of a masked killer. Kevin Bacon is solid as the seemingly mild mannered but possibly sadistic camp leader; the actor clearly liked the concept enough to be a behind the scenes producer as well. The body count is punctuated by sterling doses of intimate drama and even a jubilant singalong to a Pink anthem. Just when folks thought it was safe to be out of the closet, this twisty tale provides refreshing riffs by the queer and loathing, especially when the usual roles occupied by damsels in distress are magnificently reversed and empowered. This is unexpected fare in the streaming wilderness of late summer.
Writer/director Jordan Peele keeps his head in the clouds for Nope (B), a genre-defying paranormal action drama sure to raise eyebrows and conversations. Expertly shot and imaginatively conceived, it maintains its slow boil mystery into a fierce final act. Playing with conventions about the extent to which individuals will go to leave a legacy or even how far a filmmaker will endeavor to present a spectacle, Peele skillfully slides into a very intellectual mode for most of the film’s duration even though his film can be simultaneously enjoyed as simply a supernatural adventure. Keke Palmer and Daniel Kaluuya are engaging as siblings who uncover something afoot on their Hollywood horse ranch, and Brandon Perea is trippy fun as their technical accomplice. Steven Yeun successfully fronts a fascinating subplot about an entertainment property in an alternative universe, sometimes more compelling than the primary plot. It’s a delight to watch the cunning gamesmanship of the ensemble in advancing the story, and Peele again earns his place among visionary moviemakers even as he confounds expectations a bit.
Ethan Hawke has made some of the seminal movies about growing up and coming of age, and his casting against type as a terrifying child abductor and serial murderer in Scott Derrickson’s ‘70s-set scary movie The Black Phone (B+) is one of the project’s genius original flourishes. But the child actors Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw playing the lead siblings in this extremely entertaining film are the revelations that hold the puzzle pieces together. These charming teens are a delight, and their characters make way fewer novice mistakes in facing down their adversaries than those in typical slasher flicks. The grounded direction is taut and the story satisfying as the voices of past kidnapping victims lend the protagonist the courage to face his captor via the titular device. Some of the supernatural elements could have used a bit more explaining, but superb character work and period detail help propel the movie into the top-tier of recent elevated horror films. For its genuine performances and highly competent story beats alone, this film is a thrilling callback.
It’s possible for an elevated horror film to be so contemplative that it floats right above rational headspace. Alex Garland’s ambitious but only partially successful Men (C+) centers on Jessie Buckley as a widowed London woman who goes on a solo holiday in the English countryside but becomes disturbed by the men in the community. There’s sledgehammer allegory aplenty (sometimes as obvious as a big bite from the fruit of the courtyard apple tree) but ultimately lots of Garland’s creative visual flourishes including some “body horror” conceits haven’t been seen before. Viewers will soon know and appreciate why ensemble player Rory Kinnear is creepy menace personified. The film’s standout star though is Buckley, fresh off an Oscar nomination, who communicates bravery and dread in both plausible and outlandish parts of the story. Garland’s vision mostly exceeds his grasp in this outing, but he brings genuine characterization and suspense to the first two acts before the plot gets more toxic and off the rails than anyone expected.
A quarter century of death stab for cutie culminates in the sights and sounds of settling. Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s 2022 reboot of Scream (C+), which is essentially the fifth movie in continuity in the meta horror whodunit series, takes place 25 years after the streak of fatal stabbings from the original film as a new killer dons the Ghostface mask and targets a group of teenagers to resurrect secrets from the small California town’s deadly past. The traditional cold open – this time featuring Jenna Ortega as the ingenue who gets a threatening phone call while alone at her house – is promising with its insider discussion of what makes an “elevated modern horror movie,” but alas the film that follows doesn’t further deliver on the premise to forge a more creative path with artier intentions. Instead we follow an ensemble of newcomers ranging from Melissa Barrera to Mikey Madison to Mason Gooding who are all given scant dialogue with which to work and collectively evoke minimal chemistry or empathy. Only Jack Quaid gets some funny throwaway lines as the character who perpetually states the obvious about the horror tropes the group is experiencing within the “rules of the requel,” kind of a sequel many years later bringing back familiar stars to extend a franchise. The film’s third act finally hits high gear as those original movie stars get their hand at revenge and redemption, with Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette all effective in resurrecting their wise and weary characters. The final thirty minutes is a hoot and while still not “elevating” the horror to any new plane at least delivers what fans of the series have come to expect and love: twists and turns of the knife and events. So ultimately the slow-burn pays off for the new directors taking over for the late Wes Craven , but it’s regretful the intro and finale have more impact than the sometimes sluggish songbook in between.
It’s a mob against the masked man in this not especially terrifying continuation of a retconned timeline horror mythology. After his successful 2018 reboot, David Gordon Green further builds his boogeyman opus with the second of a proposed trilogy, Halloween Kills (C), but this follow-up proves to be a rather routine slasher film despite being competently made. There’s a bit of a big chill in the air as reuniting survivors of violent attacks by serial killer Michael Myers form a vigilante squad to thwart him once and for all, or at least until the next planned sequel, while the largely sidelined Jamie Lee Curtis character Laurie Strode recovers in a hospital after a failed attempt at offing Myers. Judy Greer and Andi Matichak get little to do as the descendants of the Strode bloodline. Will Patton as a sheriff deputy and Anthony Michael Hall as one of the kids Laurie used to babysit also get few contributions aside from Hall’s frequent exclamation that, “Evil dies tonight!” The brute force body count and candied cornucopia of creative slayings should thrill hardcore fans of horror films, but the musings that the Town of Haddonfield is now basically cursed by fear that turns neighbors against one another, Purge style, doesn’t really stick. The only mild inspiration is that Michael’s childhood home is now occupied by a gay couple (Scott MacArthur and Michael McDonald) who view the domicile for its camp value; if only the irony were carried through in other vignettes, there might have been more cleverness amidst the carnage. This installment basically confirms a tradition of inferior sequels, treads water for most of its duration and portends a “Shape” of things to come.
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.