Tag Archives: horror

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

When Horror fails: Cadaver, Bliss (2019), and The Rental

I guess you can’t win all of the time. Sometimes you’ll buy a ticket to see a movie that comes with loads of recommendations from film festivals and cinephiles who can usually be counted on for providing fair and good reviews of films. Maybe it’s a matter of taste and the movie you saw — which came to you showered in praise — turned out to be a cold, sickening mess no one should ever have to endure. Or maybe it’s just me and I wasn’t in the best of moods, and even when the movie came, delivering, I just didn’t get it, and mentally struck it with a slew of rotten tomatoes.

Fresh out of the viewing oven is the Norwegian movie Cadaver, which made its bow on Netflix last October. I’m truly baffled with this one because usually, Norway sends some pretty good films our way. This one… I don’t know where to begin with this one. I’m going to say (in defense of ) director Jarand Herdal that he seems to have a sharp cinematic eye for storytelling, and his debut picture comes with some rather on-the-nose allegory on the evils of consumerism.

However, that is as far as I can go with his movie. Cadaver starts rather well, giving us the family at the center of its dark plot. Former actress Leonora (Gitte Witt), Jacob (Thomas Gullestad), and their little daughter Alice (Tuva Olivia Remman) are trying to survive some global catastrophe that has essentially destroyed mankind (or mankind as we know it, the movie never delves deeper). They stumble onto an offer to stay at a hotel (conspicuously similar to the one in The Grand Budapest Hotel), in which its MC, Matthias (Thorbjøn Harr), reigns supreme and offers flights of theatrical fancy in exchange for a meal.

The problem starts rather immediately when we get a scenario not too far removed from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut in which everyone must wear a gold mask, and we, under the eyes of Leonora, become privy to scenes varying from deSadean debauchery to domestic dramas of the Ingmar Bergman variety (performed by Judith Andersen doppelgänger Trine Wiggen). Soon enough, everyone starts to get spooked out by either a painting of a lamb (they are everywhere) that seems to be looking at someone or sudden disappearances that make no sense. It’s not long before it becomes rather clear that there is some fuckery afoot, and guess who may be the next to be a lamb to the slaughter. Geddit? Lamb> Yeah.

Sometimes new directors have to create tripe like this in order to show more style than substance to make their mark and this is the case to a T here. Herbal oversaturated his film with blinding crimson colors to achieve his idea of dread in a way that nods to Giallo. A few other shots seemed to come with a hint of artistic tones (such as ominous handkerchiefs ballooning gracefully to the lobby). Other than that the drama that he delivered is dead on arrival. We were given next to nothing to relate to his nuclear family and the people they encounter at this sinister hotel. After a while everything started to feel irritating and shrill and even at 86 minutes, Cadaver seemed to have been stretched out to fulfill a quota. I kept squirming in my seat watching actors play characters too stupid to live and barreling ahead as if they were forced to, or else. I heard an actress utter the line, “Never!” after being asked to “Join us,” which I haven’t heard since the Silent Era, and yeah, sorry for the slight spoiler. Even a weird coda attached to the end didn’t do much but make me wonder what on Earth was anyone thinking with this film.

I’m going to give Cadaver a D for dreadful.

Even as bad as Cadaver is, nothing can really place a candle next to The Rental. Yet another movie that came with mostly glowing reviews, I’m sitting here slightly fuming because of how terrible it is. There’s just no justifying this type of movie, which is derivative of others and offers nothing new nothing stylistic, not even a slight sense of ambiance.

Again, I’m all for new directors and new cinema, but sometimes, when actors who have barely made it in the acting department start almost immediately taking the plunge and sitting behind the director’s wheel I cringe a little. That is not to say actors with limited creds can’t make it as directors: Emerald Fennell, with barely 10 years in, has made quite an entrance for herself with Promising Young Woman. Greta Gerwig clearly has been studying camera work to add to her repertoire as a movie maker and it shows in both Ladybird and Little Women, movies she penned herself (she is quite the screenwriter).

Franco and I don’t mean to say this disparagingly, may need to focus on what kind of picture he wants to make. His brand of horror — especially one that comes mixed with mumblecore sensibilities courtesy from Joe Swanberg, who wrote the film — falls flat on its face and never recovers. Had The Rental depicted a foursome closer to the characters in Drinking Buddies or The Overnight I probably would have enjoyed it. I would have seen four people, each with their own agendas and secrets, and a crisis transpiring somewhere halfway which would make or break filial bonds.

Instead, I get a stilted drama that arises when Mina (Sheila Vand) confronts the caretaker of the Air BnB home that she, her boyfriend, his brother, and his wife are renting for the weekend. Accusations of racism come out of the blue and feel forced, but so does the menace of the said caretaker (played by Toby Huss).

Huss’ character, as a matter of fact, doesn’t just linger on with huge shades of threat but keeps getting mentioned over and over again and in circumstances where there would be no way he would factor so much in the shenanigans that begin to happen in this rental. It’s almost as though through cardboard expository dialogue, we’re supposed to focus a bit too much on this character, and that defused any tension that would have taken place had the writer and director trusted their story more.

Instead we get entitled young people panicking over ill-earned paranoia and then acting upon their fears in ways that seem to lack logic. This decision plunges the story and its characters into a third act so rushed and haphazard that it seemed to come out of a necessity to finish the movies and hope that it worked. I didn’t buy it, and felt cheated upon throwing my hands up and screaming at the TV, but by then, my patience had gone out the window, and that says all I have to say about this film.

The Rental also gets a D from me.

Lastly, there is the worst of the lot. Bliss, directed by Joe Begos, is an incomprehensible mess of a film that explores the downward spiral of one Dezzy (Dora Madison). She is labeled a “brilliant visual artist who finds herself experiencing a creative block.” That’s cute. We never get to see anything of her art, no mention of her in art galleries, no interviews, nothing that can sustain this type of description. [Which begs the petition: screenwriters and directors should probably stop using the word “brilliant” to describe their characters. It went out about 30 years ago and hasn’t returned since.]

But not to digress: Dezzy is in a rut and boy does everyone around her feel it. From the second she gets introduced we see a Tasmanian devil of an obnoxious, petty character, so self absorbed in her own world she makes self-absorbed Angelenos seem positively delightful to be around in. She storms around the entire frame of the movie screaming insults at anyone and everyone she can, but that’s not the worst of it. When she gets her hand on some truly weird drug, boy do the sparks fly and not in a good way.

Bliss is a vanity project, plain and simple. “Look at me — I can direct a movie!” Fine with me, just make it interesting. Eighty minutes can’t happen like that, with so much nonsensical talking, screaming, swearing, and Madison in the middle, acting as if though this will enable her up the ladder into better performances. Sometimes I wonder if the Tribeca Film Festival even cares. Their Midnight section, where this played, has been littered with movies that don’t belong anywhere but in the trash. And that is what this movie is to me.

It’s safe to say I’m giving this one an F.

The Cinema of Nicholas Pesce: Piercing and the Eyes of my Mother

Almost 20 years ago, multiplex horror was declared unequivocally, irresolutely dead by many a moviegoer who, tired of seeing travesties coming in the form of packages stacked with a jump scare every approximate 10 minutes and denouement that made no sense simply stopped going to such movies and searched other means to get their horror on. J-horror (and its clones) were dead on arrival. How was a lover of all things dark to get one’s dread on?

The decade that just ended brought quite the relief, but I won’t get into a convoluted essay detailing the arrival of critically-acclaimed, artsy horror courtesy of indie cinema. Indie horror has been delivering since Night of the Living Dead, if not earlier — can we lump the producer Val Lewton in this group? — so before I get ripped to smithereens by what I said, I am referring to popcorn horror made to make a killing in the box office during its release week and then run.

Nicholas Pesce made quite a debut in late 2016 with a brief little black and white horror movie called The Eyes of my Mother. That movie told, with minimal special effects and a wall of atmospheric dread, the rather disturbing story of a young girl living in the country who sees a strange man do something unspeakable to her family. What happens after that is just as atrocious, in that it perpetuates the same act that brought down her family, and seeks, through repetition, permutate itself into the future, with horrific consequences.

Pesce’s follow-up, Piercing, veers closer to J-Horror in that it was written by the man who brought you 1999’s Audition so if you saw Audition you know what to expect with Piercing. Pesce’s sophomore movie tells the story of a businessman (Christopher Abbott) who has a penchant for murder. It’s safe to say that he keeps it well-hidden from his unsuspecting wife (Laia Costa) for obvious reasons (who would want to bring a wife into this situation? said no one ever). When he meets the woman he’s decided to perform some unspeakable stuff on, he’s in for quite a treat. Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) as she is called comes with some rather disturbing baggage herself, wrapped in a cocoon made of fur.

It is safe to say that from here on nothing goes as planned in Pesce’s movie, and thank God. It would have been an exercise in misogynistic porn to see Abbott stalking and tormenting Wasikowska’s damaged character for a prolonged sequence of time. That, in fact, is the least of what happens here, as both actors switch on the power button at ease and we, the viewer, just sit back and see the madness unfold.

I wish that Pesce had not caved in to pressure to make a studio film when he came out early in 2020 with his re-imagination of The Grudge. Pesce has a sharp, dense style of telling stories. His characters navigate dark, murky waters and ask for help while lashing out at the rescuer. We really don’t know how deep we will go with his leads, and I love that because it means that anything might happen at any specific moment in his films. Piercing is truly grotesque in ways that made me recall David Cronenberg and Takashi Miike without flat-out imitating them. No, Pesce has his own style, streamlined and defined, and while in The Eyes of My Mother he went for a Val Lewton look, here he goes for a more late 70s period, somewhere deep in Argento but also Fulci or Bava without the excess.

Abbott continues on a streak of unusual roles, following an exercise in Cronenberg horror via Possessor. He’s very good in his part here, showing next to no emotion where it matters the most and an almost unsettling amount of dread at what he may be capable of. Wasikowska, on the other hand, completely deceives as a woman who may be in for more than she bargained for. It’s safe to say that I think these two are a match made in heaven and should make another movie, albeit with a lot less gore, and see what comes out of it,

Grade B+