Category Archives: Horror

Film Review: Last Night in Soho

Here we have a movie that comes from Edgar Wright, a director known for light horror movies that spoof the genre while obviously enjoying it. Last Night in Soho doesn’t spoof as much as revel, and while it clearly establishes a unique perspective on a narrative that has all but died in horror/mystery movies, its second half completely implodes as it goes off the rails, until Diana Rigg finally emerges from the shadows where she’s been lurking to deliver her final performance and reel in the mess and bring it back home into a cohesive but messy close.

The movie introduces us to Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie), a fashion designer wannabe obsessed with the 60s who gets accepted to go to London to study her passion. Her grandmother (Rita Tushingham) warns Ellie about the city, mainly because she fears Ellie’s talent for seeing spirits may take over her as it did her mother, who has since died tragically. However, Ellie promises she can fend for herself, and before we know it, she’s off to London where she meets a bitchy roommate (Synnove Karlsen) and a potential love interest (Michael Ajao).

When her living conditions prove to be incompatible she answers an ad for a room for rent. The landlady who runs the townhome is Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg), another grandmotherly type who lays down the law. Ellie, still wide-eyed about London, assures Ms. Collins she will have no trouble being a tenant. However, that night, as she goes to sleep, she wakes up in the middle of 1960s Swinging London and has inexplicably walked into someone else’s reality and is merely a spectator.

That someone turns out to be Sandie (Anna Taylor-Joy). Sandie struts around London with an exuberance and self-assured confidence that would make Holly Golightly take note. However, with such females, bell that surface is a young woman longing to make her mark on the world as a singer. Sandie wanders and latches onto the Rialto, a nightclub where singers like Cilla Clark perform. She meets Jack (Matt Smith), a dashing but slightly older man, who sees potential and gives her a spot. If only Sandie would know what awaits her, she would have turned tail and run away.

Here is where the movie shines the best. It moves effortlessly from the past to the present, and often blurs the lines between the two. In including Ellie in what seems to be a mirror world of Sandie’s, Wright tells delivers a clever little piece about time folding in on itself, and that’s not an easy trick to achieve. Through Ellie, we get a look into Sandie’s life and this begins to affect Ellie in her own life. Off comes Ellie’s mousy brown color and retro 90s look, and Ellie transforms herself into a blond with a penchant for cooler outfits. The change starts to inform Ellie’s fashion sense, which also catches the eye of her teacher who sees great potential.

But this is a mystery after all, and Ellie’s school designs take a back seat to the meatier story about to unfold. Every time Ellie wakes up as Sandie, she witnesses how the initial shimmer and glamor starts to reveal the cracks in its surface. Soon it becomes clear that Sandie has walked into a trap of human trafficking and is in some form of imminent danger from Jack and the men she is forced to sleep with to pay her dues. [And with this, Last Night in Soho also delivers its social message to the public.]

Meanwhile, Ellie starts to lose her grip and devolve into something else. Like all horror-movie conduits, Ellie becomes obsessed with somehow breaking the invisible glass that separates her from Sandie and possibly changing Sandie’s destiny. One particularly horrific vision informs Ellie that Sandie met a horrible fate. Trying to get to the core of the mystery (and possibly rectify it) she crosses the path of an old man (Terence Stamp) who may know more than what he is willing to disclose. And what of the men who went missing in Sandie’s neighborhood during the years after Sandie’s horrific murder?

I’m a bit torn with this movie. For a horror movie lover who also loves a good mystery and parallel times, this one is a crowd pleaser that will deliver on all aspects. Last Night in Soho‘s first 30 minutes are truly glorious — restrained and greyish where it needs to be, because we’re in Ellie’s rather sheltered reality. Once it ventures into the 60s, the movie explodes in color reminiscent of Technicolor and that soundtrack is a killer. Anna Taylor-Joy emerges as a pure creation of the era, with her hair and dresses. You truly believe she was one of the many carefree girls parading through London and possibly catching David Hemming’s misogynistic eye as Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills did in Blow Up.

Diana Rigg in her final screen performance.

The main issue that I had with Last Night in Soho is the fact that this being a mystery with horror elements, it never quite knows what to do with the horror aspect. Wright relies too much on apparitions and these detracted from the entire movie if not outright ruined it for me. The movie has a Broadway feel to it, where everything has to be telegraphed to the farthest seat in the house with loud, garish brush strokes and Giallo imagery. Then the movie takes a hard left turn, and while it is surprising, it also doesn’t entirely convince. At best, it looks tacked on, but then, many horror movies have tacked-on endings, so who am I to judge?

Thomasin McKensie is a solid actress, but the script has her come apart at the seams. She starts the movie so natural and self-confident, but by the end she’s been reduced to talking in whispers and barely even there. It just didn’t work for me. I wish that her character would have been less a Shelly Duvall and more a heroine. That kind of simpering, horror novel female has not been seen since the 60s, although perhaps, because Ellie is so obsessed with this decade, she actually filters women’s behavior of the time.

Anna Taylor-Joy has the stronger part of the two despite her co-starring screen time. Whenever she enters the movie, it takes on an entirely different dimension, and her character arc is tragic right up until the “What happened to her, really?” moment. As a plus, the movie gives many icons of the era in their twilight performances — Diana Rigg and Terence Stamp, for one. Margaret Nolan, a Bond girl of the time, shows up as a bartender. All throw in some much needed

class into this movie. Other than that, this is candy-colored horror with a strong Signet Paperback feel to it, and that, while not a bad thing, is also, not a good thing.

VOD Review: No Dormirás (You Shall Not Sleep)

Goya famously once quoted, “The sleep of reason breeds monsters.” Stephen King once used this famous quote in a modified form: “This inhuman place breeds human monsters.” Gustavo Hernandez, a director who scored a strong debut with La casa muda (The Silent House) in 2010, seems to have wanted to compose an elegy to the first (this being an Argentinian-Uruguayan-Spanish co-production) with centering the story around an experiment. The experiment in question has actors stepping into Alma Bohm’s (Belen Rueda) drama team and subjecting themselves to sleep deprivation in order to find some truth in performance. At least, this is what I think this is; the movie is rather ill-defined in what it wants, but one would never notice because the first 45 minutes are mostly setup and not much else.

In defense of the movie’s premise, experiments in sleep deprivation were an actual thing. During the 1970s and 80s, researchers subjected participants to sessions in which they remained awake for extended periods of time. The goal was to see how long the human body could tolerate hours and hours of sleeplessness, and how this would affect the mind. When we step into the movie we see a young woman (Maria Zabay) wandering disheveled, through a darkened hallway. She seems to be drawn to something as-yet-unseen. All the while, we listen to soft yet urgent rustling sounds. The woman, who we learn is an actress of certain prestige named Marlene, comes upon a sinister-looking old woman frantically brushing her hair, her eyes locked into an unseen force, terrified. When Marlene leaves she is suddenly attacked by a horrific creature, it’s face obscured by a gauze. We then realize Marlene is the woman brushing her hair. She is a part of Alma Bohm’s bizarre experiment, and when the camera slowly zooms on Bohm’s sadistically satisfied face we know exactly what we are stepping into.

It’s a pity that Bianca (Eva de Dominici), is oblivious to the trap she’s about to walk into. An aspiring actress of notable talent, she gets bamboozled into participating in Bohm’s experiment. Bohm is using the entire sleep deprivation to conduct a performance based on a mother suffering from postpartum depression who attempted to kill her infant child. She gets pitted against her friend Cecilia (Natalia de Molina), who also happens to be a professional rival. Bianca has a backstory that gets some exploration. Her father (Miguel Angel Maciel) has his own demons that he is unable to put to rest. When his mental lapse almost kills Bianca, he commits himself to a mental facility. In a way, Bianca follows suit as she walks into a former mental hospital that is now Bohm’s headquarters.

Much of You Shall Not Sleep‘s first half is set-up peppered with slight jump scares that don’t ring as earned. Really, the hand placed on a shoulder, or a ghoulish face suddenly appearing, complete with the stinger? Snore, yawn, no. It is, however, rather interesting to see Dominici, de Molina, and Rueda interact amongst each other, with Rueda playing a cross between late-period Joan Crawford and Philip Zimbardo with relished bitchiness. The girls are interchangeable — both complement each other as ingenues — but Dominici has the meatier role as the wait trapped in a Gothic enclave trying to solve a mystery.

The second half of the movie ramps up the horror, but just a bit. Too much time gets spent in narratives that don’t really correlate with the story or the horror ambiance. Bianca manages to leave the place, and her departure serves as an interesting yet also uninspired choice by the director. Is she truly out of the shadows or still “trapped” in the scary hospital? I’ll leave that for you to decide, and it’s really nothing clever. However, the movie decides to pull out all the stops and disclose what it is really about in a series of revelations that would make Rosemary’s Baby blush and M Night Shyamalan proud. That in itself is not a compliment. Perhaps it may have worked on paper, but on screen, it looks like a cop-out. And those jump-scares just keep on coming.

You Shall Not Sleep has an intriguing premise and enough ambiance to warrant a view, but is an overreaching mess that will not merit its run time. Hernandez could have made a disturbing psychodrama of identity and yielded chilling effects and memorable performances from everyone involved, but instead goes the way of tired genre tropes and telegraphing it’s own secret way before it actually arrives.

Brief Musings: Passing, Dune, The French Dispatch, and just in time for Halloween, Antlers

Finding a common ground within the variety of movies that I watch, sometimes back to back because such is my life of living on the edge, can be a challenge. Looking at the list of what I’ve seen during the Halloween season alone makes me look like a human kaleidoscope, and because I’ve limited time to sit down and write something comprehensive, sometimes, like now, I have to clump them together and hope that the damn thing makes sense. The four movies I’m about to write some petite mots about don’t have much in common: two are based on novels, one is a director’s incursion into folk horror, and the fourth is a homage to none other than the elitist read, The New Yorker. And France, if you want to include that. What they all have in common is that all are the works of a creator stepping into the ambitious.

Ruth Negga is Claire Bellew in Rebecca Hall’s Passing

If only Nella Larsen had lived long enough to see her 1929 novella Passing be made into a movie. It makes me wonder how no one seemed to notice her work before when she was a part of the Harlem Renaissance. It might be possible that because she only published modestly, and has only two novels to her name, Larsen somehow disappeared into literary obscurity. Rebecca Hall brings her tragic story to vibrant life with her debut movie. This is the story of two African American women of mixed heritage, so mixed that they could ‘pass’ for white during the 1920s. When we meet Irene “Reenie” Redfield (Tessa Thompson), we only catch glimpses of her wide-brimmed hat as she flits about town, barely noticed. Hall surrounds Thompson with so much sun and light that presenting it in black and white leaves Thompson virtually drowning in a sea of whiteness, and that’s the purpose. You see, Irene, comfortably married to a doctor (Andre Holland of Moonlight), so she has the means to spend her days shopping and visiting places that even in New York would still be almost 100% white.

When Irene runs into a blond woman looking right at her at a chic restaurant, she seems shocked that anyone would know her since she seems to enjoy the anonymity of moving in predominantly white neighborhoods without as much as leaving a ripple. The woman turns out to be Claire Bellew (Ruth Negga), an old childhood friend whom she hasn’t seen in 10 years. The women catch up, and we learn that Claire has married rich, but upon meeting the husband, we become informed that he is virulently racist, and Claire has effectively fooled him in her ruse, even pretending herself to hate black people. But the movie moves away from Mr. Bellow (Alexander Skarsgard) and focuses on Irene and Claire, and the effect Claire has on everyone she meets. The danger of their rekindled friendship is that for a woman like Claire, being seen in Harlem might raise eyebrows, and it’s not long when the inevitable comes to pass, with dire consequences for both women.

I’ve been seeing Tessa Thompson for some time now in movies and her fascinating role in Westworld. To be honest, I’ve become almost enamored with her acting style. As Irene, Thompson is all internalization with her wide, Bette Davis eyes, her flawless enunciation, her delicate manners that recalls old Hollywood. Negga, meanwhile, counterbalances Thompson as she exudes a girlish sensuality that hides some inner pain. Just look at her deep-set eyes. The women seem to be also telegraphing some queer desire — I wouldn’t put it past Irene, who rebukes kisses from her husband, that she may have some deeply buried attraction to Claire, often seen bathed in light and exuberance. Then again… desire may be a simple observation. It makes me wonder if Irene might also quietly covet the type of life that Claire lives. She certainly reveals quite a lot when attending a function and discussing race with a close friend (played by Bill Camp). The movie manages to express quite a bit when Camp’s character, initially fascinated by Claire, upon learning her secret, basically ignores her. It’s as though he sees her as a fraud rather than the more genuine Irene who isn’t trying so hard to be noticed. His comments on the muscularity of some of the black men who attend the function leave a lot to say on how attraction shapes desire and the ongoing fetishization whites have often had towards blacks.

What I love about Hall’s movie is how she manages to convey so much with so little. Much like Todd Haynes’ 2015 movie Carol, Hall allows her characters to inhabit their own world and their spaces, and even when they talk, what they state may mean one thing but what their body language does may mean something else entirely. Hall definitely learned her time as an actress: she has a keen sense of placement, lighting, and cadence. Her movie might be deliberate, but it is never slow. If anything, it marches relentlessly to its climax, building tension scene after scene like a pressure cooker that at one point must release. If she decides to do more movies, and I hope so, I’ll be at the ready to see what she does next.

The French Dispatch

Wes Anderson is an acquired taste, and I mean that with respect. With every movie, he continues to build upon his style to a point where it almost threatens to override his movies proper. With The French Dispatch, he takes his artificial scenarios and pushes them to a level almost approaching abstraction. A movie based on the death of the founder of a magazine (Bill Murray) that seems to be a blatant stand-in for The New Yorker, who decides, as a homage to its creator, to publish five of its best stories, is not something that screams Hollywood. Who would even? Anderson, it seems, and he fabricates worlds so completely unique that we get lost in their intricacies. There are no stars in this movie; the only stars, and heroes if you will, are the writers and journalists who make up The French Dispatch, and as someone who is as budding as they can get, I love it. This is a movie that you may have to see twice to catch the minute details hidden in plain sight: Anderson loves his tiny, mannered quotes, his in-jokes, and his movie is littered with them. His actors are as stilted and deadpan as ever, and it seems everyone he has ever worked with shows up for the tiniest of parts. Notable here is Timothee Chalamet as a self-obsessed but also awkward activist hilariously named Zefirelli who loses his virginity to Anderson regular Frances McDormand as the writer who has to ghostwrite his manifesto, Lea Seydoux, paired with Benicio del Toro, as a crazed artist and his muse, and Jeffrey Wright as an author based on James Baldwin who goes on a wacky Parisian adventure.

The drama behind the making of Dune is long and rambling and I won’t get into it because, not today. I’m into my seventh paragraph and I still have another movie to write about. What little I can say about Denis Villeneuve’s epic movie is that this is one you must, above all else, view in movie theaters. I made the mistake of seeing it through HBOMAX, and nothing against the small screen — even though mine is nothing to cry about — but nothing Villeneuve will show you can be truly appreciated in the comfort of your living room/screening room. Nothing.

The story is as simple and as complex as Lord of the Rings. You have your essential struggle between two warring civilizations over a precious substance, on a planet with its own set of people and otherworldly creatures, all in a sparse but almost eternal landscape that Villeneuve renders as though this was his vision of Lawrence of Arabia. You have a hero, Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet again, and perfectly suited for his part, better than Kyle McLachlan ever was even though McLachlan was the same age as Chalamet when he played the part), and his story is the template of how a boy becomes a man. Joseph Campbell could not have written a better journey. We only get to see him at the start of his journey as he battles internal struggles and betrayals and external monsters and the unforgiving climate of Arrakis in order to find some form of safety for himself and his mother as he makes his next move.

I have nothing negative to say about Dune. Not one thing. Even at a patience-straining two and a half hours, I felt it could have been longer. Then again, this is the first of a trilogy, so of course, the entire length of Chapter One seems to be the prelude to a much larger, cosmic fight. Villeneuve has created something three-dimensional, magical, alluring, and yet he still grounds it in its own reality. Nothing seems fake or plastic — a risk many epics take and only the aforementioned Lord of the Rings has passed with flying colors. Nope — not even the Star Wars franchise has been able to replicate this. That story, which could have been ripped off of Herbert’s own work, did have its own dazzling effects of its time. The camera movement during the final battle of the first/fourth movie is a sequence to die for, over and over again. But in terms of characters, plot motivation, and relations, that movie was as cardboard as a cloak and dagger movie from 100 years ago. I could catch visual glimpses from previous movies (Arrival and Blade Runner 2049) filtering in but never intruding. The conflict and its stakes look dangerously real. This, in essence, is Herbert’s novel, intact.

An artistic rendering of a Wendigo

I would not associate Scott Cooper with the horror genre. In a directing career spanning five movies, all of his previous four have dealt with crime and redemption, and the choices men make which haunt them throughout. His latest, the much-delayed Antlers (I remember seeing the trailer for Antlers almost always following St Maud in November of 2019, before the pandemic), seems to be two movies sandwiched into one. On one side we have a domestic situation where a wayward father seems to be abusing one of his two sons; the elder befriends a teacher with a past who connects with his pain and wishes to help. On the other, we get the supernatural element of the movie — hence the title — and this is the part that works in some ways while doesn’t in others. In the middle, we get the tale of the Wendigo which also gets to feature as the movie’s opening quote, and the requisite Native American character (Graham Greene) who enters the plot to dispense some exposition of what the characters are up against.

As a whole, I will say that Antlers is better than its story should be. Its mood is as bleak as it comes, and it seems that its Oregon setting never sees the sun come out, ever. The woods form a backdrop that seems dense enough. Where I wasn’t sold was in the creature itself, and how its dark legacy passes through to humans, in essence, corrupting them. It seems that perhaps this may have had a little of the allegorical but the movie never plays it with fantasy, but straight. Scenes in which the tragic father meets an unfortunate transformation are painful to watch and rival (but don’t surpass) the werewolf scene in An American Werewolf in London. The dread element is intense and foreboding. However, characters start behaving like tropes in every horror movie known to man — so much that at one point, more than once, several players do the tired, “Is anyone there?” line, and one character literally exists to die soon later. To add insult to injury, the movie never seems to know when to stop but continues to barrel ahead as if this were a long, drawn-out gunfight, instead, replacing guns with a Final Girl and a Creature.

I wish that Cooper had taken a different route with Antlers. There are two excellent movies inside one that looks and feels mashed up but is far from unwatchable. The relation that grows between the boy (Jeremy T. Thomas) and Final Girl Jeri Russell is poignant and deserved better. Her relationship with her actor-brother Jesse Plemons suggests more than what it ultimately reveals. Had the lore of the wendigo been less supernatural and closer to “wendigo psychosis” I would have enjoyed it better. As it stands, Antlers is imperfect, stilted, but fans of folk horror who also saw Ben Wheatley’s eco-horror In the Earth (which also has its own folk thrown in) will sit back and be repulsed in a good way.

When Reality Cracks: the Ominous Surreality of Lamb

This one is going to be a mess for me to write about. How can I comment about Valdimar Johansson’s debut movie Lamb, a movie that begs to be disclosed and analyzed from all angles, without ruining it for anyone who has not yet seen it and even if they take a bit to come to, would like to? The trailer, seen on TV, is a bit much already and gives away just enough before it becomes a spoiler in itself. All I can say is, go see it, or rent it once it comes out on streaming, pay no mind to any trailers, any reviews, any videos, and let it happen, untainted by bias. The less you know about this movie, the better off you will be.

Look, parenting is hard. I am not a direct parent per se but have assisted in the task. The events in Lamb, as off the limb as they are, happen to two people who not only lost a child but desperately want to be parents. However, Lamb does not start in this manner. Much like the fellow Icelandic movie A White, White Day, Lamb begins in dread, silence, and complete isolation. Instead of a car driving to an unsuspecting destiny across a foggy landscape, we get a married couple of sheep farmers, Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Gudnason), moving in near-silence about their days as they tend to their sheep and horses. There is a monotony about their actions, similar to the monotony of the landscape at the start of A White, White Day, that conveys an empty hole.

The event that takes the movie into its dark fable at its center occurs fairly early during the movie. We don’t get to see it come to life, but Maria’s and Ingvar’s facial expressions, which navigate the scope from perplexed to the kind that can only come after witnessing a miracle, tell us all we need to know. It’s the decision that follows shortly after that then drives the story. The lengths to which both Maria and Ingvar will go to not only act as this were the most quotidian thing in the world but to also, protect it from any outside intrusion, becomes Lamb‘s driving force. Oh, but if only they knew how far the repercussions from their actions will go…

This is the type of movie that viewers will either get or they will not. Its concept seems far-fetched, but switch the “gift” that Maria and Ingvar receive to let’s say… something less strange, and you may even say this could be a case of kidnapping, which by default creates an imbalance. Maria’s behavior, more so than Ingvar, is extremely telling in how protective she becomes, how far she is willing to fill the imbalance in her own life. To see a woman devolve from an otherwise unassuming farmer to ruthless killer in one visually jarring scene made all the crueler by the vastness of its surroundings and how the camera lingers shortly after as Maria performs methodic disposal of evidence is to see a performance that moves from sanity into much greyer, nebulous lines.

Then you see an outsider, revealed to be a family relative, who witnesses this act of brutality (with nods to the violence that men inflict upon defenseless animals, as seen previously in the 2020 documentary Gunda) and infiltrates Maria’s and Ingvar’s house and speaks for the audience. That is, right up until he himself decides to take matters into his hands (in one of the movie’s more chilling sequences) and finds that as bizarre as it may seem, he also has to accept whatever nightmare reality has invaded the real world. Perhaps in avoiding this action he gets spared the more bizarre comeuppance that transpires in the movie’s veer into cosmic tragedy and renders the family unit to shreds.

If Lamb has any message, it would be simply: be careful what you claim as your own. Maybe even more succinctly: respect nature; don’t force nurture. What might come back claiming its own might be just as unforgiving as you were with an animal who also couldn’t experience motherhood.

Three Strikes: The Djinn, Malignant, and Aterrorizados (Terrified)

I hate writing about movies I disliked and my opinions seem to be the only ones that stand apart from the rest. It makes me feel as though perhaps I’m the only one who failed to glean the argument and the movie, which I deem to be bad, or shall I say, flawed, is a product whose essence simply escaped me.

Such is the case with these three horror movies that come with enormous praise from critics and moviegoers alike. Given the pandemic, I saw each and every one of them back to back during the weekend as I write this. As I do in movies, I went in reading no reviews, seeing no video commentary, no Chris Stuckmann or spookyastronauts on Youtube. I simply wanted to get my own gist of these films, see what the buzz was about, and if in fact, they were worth the hype.

Careful what you wish for and always perform a banishing, just in case.

First in stop, The Djinn. This movie came out earlier in the year in virtual cinema (I don’t think it was technically released into theaters but I may be incorrect as cinemas were still in early 2021 playing to limited crowds). The Djinn, directed by David Charbonier and Justin Powell and starring young Ezra Dewey as Dylan, tells the story of a deaf-mute boy who one night finds a book hidden in the deeper depths of his father’s new house. The book seems to be a book of shadows, and anyone awake in the occult will know what those are supposed to be. In horror movie territory, you should always beware of books of shadows. Always, without the slightest doubt. Any one of these will always elicit a portal into a dark world full of horrifying creatures eager to do unspeakable things to an unwitting person conducting a conjure, and the last thing anyone wants to do is open Pandora’s box and unleash holy hell unto the sleeping world, eh?

Now, I’m not saying that if you conjure a being into this world you might not get a surprise, but that’s a bit much information, and this is a movie review, NYCcritic. Focus. Open your occult blog someplace else. Dylan, wanting to I guess play with magick, conjures up a djinn. He does the spell in a rather, semi-accurate sort of way, the kind of manner the witch inside of me went, eh, well, works if you don’t give a fuck but I wouldn’t do that. Nothing happens. Except, something happens — Dylan just doesn’t know it yet.

You see, Dylan in the movie unleashes a little more than a horror — he sets free an evil spirit, a djinn. For those of you curious about what a djinn is, here is a link to where you can read more about it. Now. I know that a djinn is a neutral supernatural entity that can be employed for good as well as evil. The movie, however, decides to go with the latter, and from there on, we see Dylan battling this shadowy creature that has let’s say, vaguely sinister intentions set on Dylan, his father, and I guess the entire movie if that were the case,

I’m torn with this one. Is it good or is it bad? I don’t want to trash anything because again, to each their own cinema, but to me, The Djinn is okay in terms of overall ambiance — spooky, but not memorable — and minimal in its construction which works to its advantage. On the other end, the movie simply never questions its characters, motives, and simply establishes a setup so basic it may have almost been phoned in. I’m not saying this approach is incorrect; what do I know about being behind the camera. However, I get it — movie makers want to impress, especially in their first outing. The horror genre is where almost everyone from David Lynch to Robert Eggers got started. It’s the easiest way to impress. It’s where a director establishes style and mood and guarantees a footing in the film world. What I didn’t quite get was the simplistic view of this story. Perhaps in another, less demanding time, perhaps in the world of Jacques Tourneur, something like this would have been taken at face value. It is entirely possible to conjure up a being that has less than noble interests with you, It’s just that the movie never questions anything that happens; it sets an event that in turn sets events in motion that eventually unspool the entire thing, and to be, while it seems okay… it just doesn’t resonate.

Perhaps the movie escaped me. I had a similar experience while watching The Endless, an indie horror movie that was much-lauded upon its 2018 run. I just did not see anything new or different, or even campy and self-aware; all I saw was a rehash of every direct-to-HBO-or-Showtime horror movie from the 80s that I managed to see back then. The Djinn has the ambiance it needs, some jaw-dropping effects, solid performances from its small cast, and some truly good effects… it just lacks a special bang to it. I could be wrong.

When I heard about Malignant I was interested because I’m a James Wan fan and I’ve seen his Saw and Insidious franchises (at least, the ones he penned and directed before the sequels became sillier). Sinister creeped me the hell out of my skin for a good while, and I don’t say that often. Since I wasn’t yet going to movies but streaming at home for pandemic reasons, I figured I would see it in the comfort of my home with the lights off for added horror movie ambiance.

Once the movie started, I somehow thought, “Well — this is different,” referring to the bombastic music score and its overtly Gothic feel. Once I saw the movie’s prologue in which doctors are trying to perform some form of control on a wild subject, I kept getting flashbacks to House on Haunted Hill from 1999 with its massive psych-ward and seemingly insane doctor. I went, “Okay, a lot to unpack here with whatever the heck is going on behind that translucent curtain but I’m sold.”

Then the movie leaps forward to the present. The aptly named and very pregnant Madison Lake (Annabelle Wallis, no relation to the doll) — because why wouldn’t she, it’s a relatable name — returns home after being sick on the job. Her husband Derek (Jake Abel) is abusive, and we witness this by seeing Derek lash out at her with so much rage that he bashes her head against a wall. Out of nowhere, a shadowy figure like a Deux ex Machina intervenes and by doing so, it saves Madison from becoming a statistic of domestic violence. However, she loses her child, and Derek winds up very much dead.

It’s not long after Madison returns home that strange things start happening not to her, but around her. She seems to be “seeing” murders that are occurring all over town and every murder is somehow connected to her. It turns out that Madison was adopted at birth. This leads to a whole slew of discoveries about Madison’s past is in relation to the unseen killer that is connected to her. The movie drops a massive plot twist somewhere past the half way time, and then it sort of becomes a free-for-all, a generic battle of good versus evil that in turn becomes rather silly and just too predictable.

In concept, Malignant works, although the exploration of a darker half seems to be the mood lately in horror movies. I keep hearing how good it was, and how people simply loved it. I seem to be a band apart. It’s not that I disliked it; it’s that I felt that while the movie on one end looks gorgeous — it has pristine lighting and superficial mood for ages — it throws so many disparate elements that it took me right out of its story. When you can see the man behind a curtain a mile away and early into the movie you know you have a problem. Malignant is as loud and in your face as a police siren cranked up to deafening decibels. It never rests, leaving you totally exhausted and with an hour still left on the clock. Also, it’s just not that scary: had Wallis played Madison with a little restraint I would have accepted it more. As it stands, she plays Madison with exclamation points from start to finish.

Such is the tone for Wan’s movie. I’ll probably; be in the minority and it doesn’t matter, anyway, the movie is set to make its budget cost and then some and I can predict there will be some sequel to its story.

Lastly, there is the Argentinian movie Terrified (Aterrados) which has been floating around Amazon Video for almost four years now since its 2017 release overseas [it never had a US premiere]. Terrified tells the story of people in a neighborhood possessed by something truly horrifying and the investigation that follows. I’m, again, perfectly okay with the concept. A haunted neighborhood? Sign me in. The problem lies when the director tries to lay his stamp on what you are seeing and tries so hard to scare the living daylights out of you that he throws all but the kitchen sink to see what sticks and what doesn’t.

I won’t lie; the first scene of Terrified was rather intense (even when you could see the patchwork special effects that helped it happen). Another sequence involving the return of a boy that goes missing is a real steal. It’s also a long sequence, filled with unease and nervous silence and people wondering how the heck and this (whatever is taking place) be even happening.

It’s when the movie goes into its investigative part that the story falls apart at the seams and just does not recover. Featuring three of the worst players I have ever seen — one of them with a mangled American accent — they attempt to resolve the dilemma of the hauntings by setting up shop within the three homes. It’s no secret what comes next, but the manner that director Demian Regna executes them seems too loose to even call scary.

Terrified somehow has made it to the list of movies too scary to watch as proven by science. I’m going to have to ask science to reconsider its findings. That’s all I really have to say about this.

Trying to survive in silence: A Quiet Place 2

It just occurred to me that in all the years that I’ve been writing my barely-read, in-the-shadows reviews for movies ranging from the oldest to the latest that I never wrote an official one for John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place from 2018. So, because its sequel is far superior to the other, which cements Krasinski as a keen director of Hitchcockian suspense, I’ll also include the first one in this short little piece that predictably, no one will most likely read and will float in cyberspace forever or until the site goes down.

When we start A Quiet Place 2, we meet the family at the center of its streamlined, minimal plot. Still trying to reach some form of safe harbor, Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) her son Marcus (Noah Jupe), and deaf-mute daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) arrive at a fenced-off area in s steel foundry. Unaware that it is a minefield of booby traps, Evelyn accidentally sets one off. As they run towards for shelter from the extremely sound-sensitive aliens that now roam the Earth, Marcus accidentally steps over a bear trap in one of the movie’s more shocking, gruesome scenes.

When the Abbotts reach safety, they run into an old friend, Emmett (Cillian Murphy). Emmett, a lone-wolf survivor who maks it clear their presence will attract more danger, tells the Abbotts they cannot stay. In the meantime, Marcus has been listening to snippets of “Beyond the Sea” playing over and over. Regan realizes that the song’s continuous playback is code to a safe haven. Not wanting to wait around, Regan takes off on her own to find the source of this transmission and use her cochlear implant as a weapon against the nasty aliens that have upended the entire planet.

More often that not, sequels to movies tend to meander in the middle, not quite concluding as much as advancing the plot to the finale that will surely arrive with all the bells and whistles to satisfy its audience. A Quiet Place 2 is the rare sequel/second part that is a massive improvement over the excellent first. While the first movie painted a warped picture of domestic life after a doomsday scenario, A Quiet Place 2 expands on that by giving us a front-row seat to Day Zero when the aliens first arrive. The scene is as gripping as it gets and establishes the tone of the movie. Grounding the story with an action sequence that is a tour-de-force of visual narration, the Abbott family, and Emmett, witness their sunny day go to hell in moments that seem to be too fast to digest, and quite on the spot transform from befuddled spectators to unrelenting survivors.

If the scene might falter just a bit, is in the self-awareness of moving in silence the characters exhibit, but I was okay with that, the same way I was okay with the obvious plot device of the upturned nail on the creaky barn stairs of A Quiet Place. No story has to be perfect to make sense. Even Hitchcock was aware of that and gave next to no explanation on why Annie simply vanishes after the attack scene on the children at the Bodega Bay school in The Birds. He simply wrote her out in a memorable scene and let the other actors (Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, and Veronica Cartwright) do the heavy lifting.

Speaking of Hitchcock, and I know this is my third mention of him, Krasinski has, with his sequel, created a nerve-wracking movie of sheer tension. There was plenty of this in the first movie, particularly when Evelyn makes the painful acquaintance of the aforementioned nail and then delivers her baby as her husband Lee (Krasinski) rushes to the barn to save her from a creature she has unwittingly attracted.

Krasinski outdoes himself when he splits the family unit up. [And who didn’t see this one coming?] Regan, who emerges as the badass of the movie, leaves the safety of her surroundings against the warnings of Emmett to search for the source of the radio transmission. Evelyn departs to a nearby town to get supplies for her family and leaves Marcus, and her baby, behind in the safety of the foundry. How Krasinski goes by unspooling these separate plot threads into one cohesive entity is what suspense should be like. It reminded me of the type of movies Brian De Palma used to do, in which the action transpired in more than one location. While Krasinski never employs long panning or tracking shots like De Palma, he delivers nail-biting thrills that go right over the edge without taking the movie off of its rails.

A Quiet Place 2 is available on Paramount + and most online streaming services,

In The Earth is a trippy pandemic eco-horror from Ben Wheatley

If the 2020 pandemic has anything to teach us it’s that humans will do anything to survive, and many will regress to savagery both out in the cold or in a domestic setting. Basically, either way, we’re fucked, and that is all there is to it. When you think of it, that’s a pretty grim picture to paint, but when you look at how we’ve been treating ourselves and our relationship to the planet ever since the Industrial Revolution, it’s only predictable that something greater, or maybe even something from deep within our own home would have lashed back and taught us a nasty lesson.

Ben Wheatley, no stranger to horrific visions (Kill List, A Field in England), devises a setup that already places his characters in a rather bad position. You see, the Earth has been through an unknown plague of sorts. Society has broken down, and scientists are searching for a cure and hope for humanity. In the interim, the disappearance of a scientist who went out into the woods to search for her own cure, which has to do with mycorrhizal emanations and their role in finding this elusive cure. [The movie goes into elaborate explanations of how this works, and it only gets more complicated as the movie goes deeper, but that’s not the focal point.]

Enter Martin Lowery (Joel Fry), who alongside Alma (Ellorchia Torchia, last seen in Midsommar), a park ranger, set out to find the scientist who is somewhere in the woods. However, their search — and the woods themselves — starts to take an ominous turn rather quickly. An empty tent that seems to have houses a family shows up, as does a sense of being followed. The pair gets viciously attacked in the thick of the night by unseen vandals who take off with all that they have, including their shoes. The following day, Martin and Alma continue, but Martin injures his foot when he steps on an unseen piece of sharp wood. Into the already fire scene comes Zach (Reece Shearsmith), a scraggly-haired loner who comes with much-needed help… and a little extra.

It’s that extra that sets the tone of the movie and drives it deeper into its heart of darkness. Soon enough, we’re seeing the sleeping cast being photographed without their consent, and a dinner that follows devolves into a sustained balancing act involving a sharp object and Martin’s injured foot that rivals the hobbling scene in Misery. Even then, Wheatley is not done and has more weirdness to show. I couldn’t but help find a hint of Apocalypse Now in the events that follow when the twosome miraculously and literally by the skin of their teeth reach the nebulous scientist, and this may be where the movie either loses you or wins you over.

For me, the insanity of its final thirty minutes or so we’re pretty intense, but a tad confusing. So much of what transpires hinges on whether you ascribe to ancient legends and the concept that nature may be more sentient than we give it credit for. Wheatley, however, makes the entire movie come together into one delirious climactic sequence, and while I walked out knowing precious little, the fact that its own brand of dread came with the madness that lurks deep inside was enough for me.

In the Earth is available on Prime.

Two Examples of Smart Science Fiction: The House at the End of Time and Stowaway

I’m not exactly sure why Alejandro Hidalgo’s 2013 movie The House at the End of Time (La casa del fin de los tiempos) is considered a horror movie. While the surface presentation has all the makings of a woman in peril from an unseen threat, which is the bread and butter of all things horror, this is a very intelligent movie about time, our relation to it, and the act of repetition that condemns generations to never leave the START position.

To begin with, the movie starts in media res. A woman (Ruddy Rodriguez of Venezuelan soap fame and established film actress) lies on the floor. She’s either witnessed or been involved in a terrible supernatural struggle that has knocked her cold for a moment — a crucial one. In the interim, she realizes that her son is missing and something terrible is about to happen. Upon arriving at the lowest part of the house she discovers the body of her husband (Gonzalo Cubero), and her son, standing nearby. Before she can make a move to grab him, Leopoldo vanishes, seemingly pulled from behind by an unknown force.

The woman returns to her home years later. We learn she was, by Venezuelan law, found guilty of killing not only her husband but her entire family. After serving time, the courts have granted her to live out the rest of her years in house arrest where she will have guards at the ready outside her home (as if house arrest weren’t bad enough already!). Not soon after she arrives, the supernatural elements return to torment her, and we wonder, will she repeat the actions of the past, or is there a much larger force at play that involves whatever lives within the walls of her house?

Much of the story hinges on what happens in the present, which inevitably catches up not with the future but with the opening sequence. The story incurs into elements of time as an elastic concept: what has or will happen may have already been a part of a chain of events, which may be a part of a bigger wheel altogether. In this respect, The House at the End of Time veers closer to science-fiction than horror. How it splices events that may be occurring at the same time, while also maintaining a sense of high domestic drama involving the dissolution of the family is a marvel to watch. That the movie never tries to go too deep into its mythos is key to its success. It presents a backstory, which is almost a necessary evil in most horror movies nowadays — especially those that involve dark places — but that in itself never overwhelms the logic of this illogical movie that plays its story over and over again like a Moebius strip. Anchored by a sharp performance by Ruddy Gonzalez and a cast of mainly unknowns on this side of the [Caribbean] Sea, The House at the End of Time is a great example of doing much with less. In doing so, it can deliver a gripping story that of maternal love that defies space and time. On Amazon Prime.

Meanwhile, on Netflix, is a little science fiction movie called Stowaway, and believe me, I almost didn’t see this movie based on its title alone. Doesn’t the title give you an idea of a space mission that (shocker!) either carries or brings an unwanted organism on board, one with an insatiable appetite? I know! So the look of surprise when I come to realize early on that this is far, far different from that type of sci-fi horror movie. In fact, Stowaway is about survival, but of an entirely different nature altogether. Stowaway centers on a group of astronauts en route on a two-year mission to Mars. Soon after launching, the head of the mission, Marina Barnett (Toni Collette) discovers a man unconscious inside the ship. The man turns out to be Michael (Shamier Anderson), a tech who passed out right before take-off and was thus unable to get off the ship in time.

In another science fiction movie, his appearance would be relegated to almost a non-event unless the character was an antagonist (as in the case of the rebooted version of Lost in Space, also on Netflix). Director Joe Penna and Ryan Morrisson have concocted a much different scenario here. You see, it turns out that the ship can only house three people, not four. This being a two-year mission now complicates matters. While the small crew, which consists of biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim) and sensitive Dr. Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) try to make Michael fit in, it becomes increasingly clear that Michael is more of a hindrance and could seriously jeopardize their entire mission to the point that nobody could survive in the end.

I love it when movies go the route of the humanistic side of the conflict as opposed to the by-the-numbers one vs. them plot which has been done so many times it practically arrives precooked and prepackaged for immediate consumption and instant forgetting. Stowaway delivers four fully fleshed-out characters who are caught in an unfortunate situation that is fay beyond their control. It never feels forced and focuses the attention to see how the foursome reacts not to one another but also to the constant peril that they face. There is a sense of slight sadness throughout the entire movie, one that gets magnified the deeper we get into the story. The entire tone of somberness, in fact, helps Stowaway achieve a feeling of tragic transcendence that becomes almost palpable in its final sequences. This is a solid second effort from the same director who in 2019 brought the survival movie the Arctic with Mads Mikkelsen, Highly recommended.

The Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do it, So I Sat Down and Watched it on HBO.

I often wonder why is it that when you have a movie that churns up a sequel, producers and creators alike feel the need to install a third (and, potentially, final) film in its universe. That’s not even including adjacent stories that might include some of the characters from the original plot thread, but you get the picture, even when the picture itself while looking great, feels like a complete let-down.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is the (aforementioned) third in the Conjuring universe (although the original spawned the Annabelle movies, because, money). As with the previous two, it focuses on yet another case of possession that the Warrens were involved in. Only that this time, the stakes are higher, because it involves a young man named Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor) on trial for the gruesome murder of his landlord, and the fact that Johnson claimed to have been under demonic possession at the time of the murder.

I liked the previous two movies which brought the Warrens in as strong co-starring characters attempting to solve a case because it focused more on the family trauma and forced the plot into the familiar territory of the haunted house trope (and in these movies, all the houses are enormous and claustrophobic as heck). Centering the story around them somewhat dilutes the overall theme. However, I can see where the producers were headed with the third (and again, hopefully final) installment.

It was only time before the couple known for cracking paranormal cases would, as shown in a scene in the first Conjuring in a vision of horror Lorraine Warren experiences, find themselves at the unwelcome end of a malevolent evil — the same evil they themselves were trying to stop in the first place. In a way, it’s a neat way to tie up ends and bring the horror home, to have the Warrens face their own Everest and (in a cheesy manner) reaffirm their own marriage vows.

On that basis, the movie succeeds. Where it doesn’t is in the inclusion of Satanic Panic into the plot, which arrives under the form of John Noble, who plays the predictable character who knows more than he should and exists solely for the purpose of explaining some backstory and delivering some foreboding nods that lean towards a “leave it alone, this is not your battle” type of advice. This is not saying that Noble doesn’t commit to a solid performance — he does, even when he has to deliver a convoluted and implausible explanation of what has happened. However, I’ve always been of the belief that the less one knows, even after investigation, the better. And then I recalled that both the previous two movies also leaned on a backstory.

For the most part, The Devil Made Me Do it is a good, handsome spectacle to watch. Director Michael Chaves establishes a reliable sense of suspense with solid camera work, particularly in the opening scene in which a boy (Julian Hillard) finds himself trying to hide from an unseen thing out to get him, and when Lorraine, using her abilities as an empath, dives deep into the mystery that is haunting Arne Johnson (and may be part of a larger plot).

Where it fails: While it’s okay to make references to other movies, to basically insert scenes that look like an exact replica is a bit lazy. When you can see one scene lifted clear off from The Exorcist, and another one from the book version of The Shining (which happens rather late in the book and was also used for Doctor Sleep), then the disappointment happens. Adding to that, The Devil Made Me Do It seems to have lost its original steam, its magic. Its existence is meant for those who are die-hard fans of the movie’s old-school, 70’s horror cinematic universe, and who can scare easily without much effort. If you want to see truly disturbing horror movies, and I mean stuff that will keep you up at night and question your own taste, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Grade: B

SFIFF: Censor

One of the aspects I enjoy the most from the horror genre is the manner in which it uses imagery to convey a deeper brushstroke. Prano Bailey-Bond’s movie Censor is a neat hat trick in which the director focuses on the same media she is using to tell a story about mourning. She focuses the spotlight on her heroine, Irish actress Niamh Algar, whom she then has play a movie censor who has to determine what snippets of horror movies are a bit much and need to be excised in order for the movie to be palatable. Think of her as the person or team behind ratings or standards and practices. If a scene is too gruesome, she’s onboard to command that it be edited out.

It is when Algar’s character, who by the way has the unfortunate and schoolmarmish name of Enid Baines for a reason, receives news from her own parents that her sister, who went missing years ago, has been declared dead when Censor starts to build up the dread. Enid, who already takes her job a slight too seriously, starts to have bad reactions to certain scenes, and some memories which she seems to have had repressed come to the forefront in menacing ways. Enid watches a movie sent to her and sees someone who resembles her sister down to a science (had her sister grown up, that is). Convinced that the woman, her sister, is still alive, Enid begins to find a way to get her back, and with that, her grip on reality begins to crumble.

Censor is a sharp piece of movie-making that manages to convey how a tight grip on one’s psyche can merely be an illusion. Enid, the lone person whom we can hold on to here, is a tight drum dressed in antiquated attire, her brown hair in a bun, eyes behind studious glasses. She seems to have survived something horrific from her childhood, and this job, which lands her in hot water with the public at one point, comes with the promise of escaping a dour reality and progressively delving into something darker, richer, and more exciting.

Watching Censor, I couldn’t but keep getting references to Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio — and no, this is not a cheap comparison to that film. Strickland’s movie also dealt with the act of creating a horror film and often employed visuals and sounds that were often chilling. Censor executes a similar act with the editing process, but also with sequences that reenact a traumatic moment that Enid simply has not processed correctly. I loved that the movie, shot in drab colors (except when presenting its horror movies which are lit in bright neon tones reminiscent of Giallo), progressively comes brightly lit itself. It is as though Bailey-Bond herself was using the editing process as a way to make the film itself shed its old skin and reveal the screaming horror underneath.

I also loved the slow progression of its story. There is only one jump scare during the entire film, and it arrives completely justified. I would even say that it becomes essential that Enid get that sort of visceral shock, because it shakes her out of her weird reverie. Once the violence arrives, it feels as though a can of black, emotional worms have been released. Only that this time, they come drenched in neon and a sense of complete disorientation that Bailey-Bond employs to maximum effect down to the film’s last scene.

Censor will arrive to US cinemas in June of 2021.

Grade: B+