The venerable Burning Man Festival has nothing on the art house stylings of Ari Aster’s Midsommar (C+), 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.
Have you heard? A popular new film genuinely nails how fiercely parents will fight for the safety of their offspring. And the fact that the ultimate fight is staged in near-silence brings great power and resonance to the proceedings. John Krasinski directs, co-writes and stars in A Quiet Place (A), a taut and surprisingly tender thriller following a family who must live life in silence while hiding from creatures that hunt by sound. In career best performances, he and Emily Blunt are astonishingly effective as the protective parents, and the child actors are good too in a world they make very believable. There’s an urgency and economy to every sequence, whether horrific or heartfelt, and a lean logic to the film’s dystopian, supernatural milieu. It’s a rare mainstream movie of undeniable craft and nonstop upping of the ante, especially with the built-in limits about how sound is muted or conserved for much of the film’s breakneck duration. The filmmakers get very creative with ways for the characters to communicate, from sign language to subtitles to knowing glances. There are also psychological underpinnings that elevate the movie to master status. It’s a great cinematic offering with scares and heart whether you generally like horror films or not.
The haunted house movie, the expectant mom horror film, the pretentious self-aware arthouse offering and the annual fall travesty starring Jennifer Lawrence all sink to incredible new lows in the gobsmackingly bad new Darren Aronofsky film, Mother! (D). Rarely has a ham-fisted metaphor been more startlingly stretched over a motion picture’s running time. Ostensibly this often irritating film is about an author (Javier Bardem) and his wife (Lawrence), both written as extraordinarily passive, as they rebuild a secluded Victorian mansion and their life together after a tragic fire and try to stave off a series of invasions into their space. The preposterous and inexplicable events that occur as the story unfolds are simply stupefying and increasingly shrill. What starts with genuine menace and some real scares devolves quickly, and the payoff should really involve a refund. From the bizarre lack of chemistry between Lawrence and Bardem to unusual cameos involving two additional Oscar nominees, a former member of the SNL ensemble and a Force Awakens cast member, this cavalcade of hot mess surprises at every corner and not in a good way. Finding out some of the illusions are actually allusions provides only a modicum of solace after all the cacophony. The story and subplots are at the mercy of the symbolism, which renders character intention irrelevant. I did like Michelle Pfeiffer, who makes some fun and arch choices with her houseguest-from-hell character. Ultimately Aronofsky’s off-putting opus plumbs more biblical proportions than even his misbegotten Noah. By the end, the experiment was obvious, and it was performed on the audience. See this film only to discuss it.
Being trapped in a funhouse of fears with precocious kids and a flesh-eating dancing clown may be the stuff of horror film aficionado fever dreams. But something is definitely missing in Andy Muschietti’s movie adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, It (C+), chapter one of a planned duology, a film that oozes with Spielbergian nostalgia but mostly floats in a preposterous purgatory. The director starts with promise and establishes a credible hero played by Jaeden Wesley Lieberher. The youngster leads a tepid tween team of protagonists who are a bit too Stand By Me-esque to feel like true originals. The first glimpse of Bill Skarsgård as the phantom pantaloon with a Cockney cannibal pie hole is menacing indeed. But too many kids, too many CGI shape-shifters and too many similar set-ups render the enterprise less than terrifying. After a while the answer to everything seems to be, “Cue the clown!” It’s ultimately a horror film without enough scares. Sophia Lillis is a standout as a young lady battling family dysfunction, but hers and all subplots are half-baked. These goonies aren’t good enough. By the end, it’s rather unclear why things unspool the way they do or why it might take a second chapter to tell this tale.
Written and directed by Terrence Malick protégé Trey Edward Shults, It Comes at Night (B+) is a superb psychological horror film that wrings generous art house thrills out of a straightforward apocalyptic premise. A couple and their son (Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo and Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) have secluded themselves in a country home as a contagious disease plagues the outside world, and they are faced with a cat and mouse dilemma when visited by another couple and their son (Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough and Griffin Robert Faulkner) who may or may not be safe or worth harboring. Edgerton and Abbott are fabulous foils, one the rule-abiding master of an elaborate isolated house and the other the scallywag with a backstory. The casting is creative and unexpected: Abbott is wonderful, and the acting is great all around. Shults makes the most of a fairly low-budget bare-bones production space to stage his wicked one-upmanship. He is imaginative in what he doesn’t show the audience and teases with darkness as an effective canvas for scares in the first act before introducing a more conventional narrative. Hardcore horror fans may be let down by the lack of gore and by the calculated pace, but this summer film-goer was delighted at the effective storytelling on display.
Prepare your senses for the clock-woke orange pulp confection of audacious moviemaking to hit a nerve in some time. Funnyman-turned-first-time-director Jordan Peele’s psychological thriller Get Out (A-) is a suspenseful and lively tale of a twentysomething black photographer (Daniel Kaluuya) visiting the suburban family of his white girlfriend (Allison Williams), and the maiden voyage is a mindbender. Let’s just say that after the home tour, the events that follow will leave you guessing about a whole lot more than who’s coming to dinner. From the spot-on casting of Williams’ ultra-progressive parents to the sustained sense of dread around the townspeople and groundskeepers, Peele depicts the mounting terror that may be afoot in the neighborly facade. It’s like Shining-era Stanley Kubrick got an all-out David Lynching. Themes about the appropriation of race and culture are seamlessly marinated into a savory stew of a storyline; and the acting, music, sounds and setting all work in harmony to incredible effect. Catherine Keener is a standout as a therapist with unconventional hypnotic techniques, brilliantly rendered. As a horror film, it’s less gory and more allegory. But it’s edge of your seat material and sure to be the conversation starter of the year!
Regaining his strut as a writer/director of modern-day suspense films, M. Night Shyamalan has crafted an entertaining psychological thriller and met an acting match for his cinematic chutzpah in James McAvoy headlining Split (B+). The film is above all else a showcase for the considerable acting talents of McAvoy as a man with 23 discrete personalities (Dennis, Patricia, Barry and Hedwig among the most notable). McAvoy uses some pretty sly ticks and tricks to bring brilliant life to his menagerie of characters. What starts as an abduction and escape room type movie in the vein of the recent 10 Cloverfield Lane becomes a more labyrinthine glimpse into a shattered mind. The female protagonist played by Anya Taylor-Joy helps anchor the film gracefully; she’s a perceptive outsider bent on cracking the code of the man holding her captive with two other teens. It’s also a hoot to see a late-career Betty Buckley in fine form clearly relishing a role as a therapist specializing in split personality disorders. The two other abducted teens played by Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula aren’t quite as indelible in the face of other sharp characterizations. The film is mesmerizing at times and taut throughout until the end, when it limps a bit to the finish line. Like his clear antecedent auteurs Hitchcock and De Palma, Shyamalan has created a twisty tale full of engaging mental machinations. It lacks the visual urgency to match its lead performances and can’t quite sustain the mental sharpness of its moving pieces. But for horror fans who like a PG-13 level basket of scares, it’s a gangbusters gateway drug to the genre and a corker of a story.
Yoav and Doran Paz’s JeruZalem (B) is a welcome addition to the found-footage horror genre, with a compelling female-centric viewpoint, a mysterious setting and a surprising portal for storytelling. Two traveling American females winningly played by Yael Grobglas and Danielle Hadelyn meet a young anthropologist, the charming Yon Tumarkin, on a plane to Israel and divert from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem for what becomes a vacation to the gates of hell. In addition to the novelty of on-location shooting in the Holy City, the film’s revelation is that it’s seen through the eyes of a Google Glass type application. Facial recognition, virtual reality avatars, photo freeze-framing and links to popular social networking sites rendered right in front of Hadelyn’s character’s line of sight add a compelling mind’s eye viewpoint into proceedings both commonplace and apocalyptic. Tom Graziani is also a delight as the Arabic host who turns the travelers on to hostels, hummus and hash before the quartet all face horror together. A sinister and sly story for the selfie age, the film suffers a bit when it veers too sharply into the conventions of its genre, and there are missed opportunities to plumb some of the film’s potential religious ramifications; but high production values and a smart POV ultimately win the doomsday.