IN THE TALL GRASS. Country, Canada. Director: Vincenzo Natali. Screenwriter: Vincenzo Natali, based on the novella by Stephen King and Joe Hill. Cast: Laysla De Oliveira, Avery Whitted, Patrick Wilson, Will Buie, Jr. Harrison Gilbertson, Rachel Wilson. Runtime: 101 minuets. Release Date: October 4, 2019. On Netflix.
Mostly Indies Rating: C
With so much material on his hands it’s more often than not that a writer of the stature of King will in some ways repeat himself thematically, if not do outright re-writes of previous works. His novella In the Tall Grass, co-written with his son Joe Hill, seems to suggest yet another incursion into cult horror in the middle of nowhere.
From its opening sequence the film’s premise follows the same as the one in Children of the Corn in both story and original movie with the sole exception that while that one consisted of a forgotten little place overrun by children who worship some god of the underworld, this time, there are no people around but a strange expanse of impossibly tall grass in which a strange rock, possibly the remnants of a meteorite, stands still but gleams in malevolent energy eager to meet the unsuspecting for a little fun in blood sacrifice.
The unsuspecting are a set of two families. The first, a brother and sister duo, Cal and Becky (Avery Whitted and Laysla De Oliveira), who stop while on the way to San Diego because Becky, who is pregnant and needs to relieve herself, has just heard the cries of a boy lost in the middle of the tall grass. Against her better judgement, and because she also overhears what seems to be the boys mother (Rachel Wilson) telling the boy to not to call anyone in, she and Cal set into the grass to locate the boy, and soon realize that time and distance seems to be playing tricks on them. What seemed to be a few feet now seems to have stretched farther out, and soon, both she and Cal are hopelessly lost in this never ending sea of green. However, the movie doesn’t limit itself to people lost within grass: soon Becky encounters Ross (Patrick Wilson), who’s also searching for his family, while Cal meets the boy, Tobin (Will Bule, Jr., a young actor with a striking resemblance to Elijah Wood at the start of his career some 20 years ago). Tobin at first seems a bit shifty. Remember, this is the Stephen King universe. Kids in his stories can be either preternaturally self-reliant and thus, trustworthy, or basically the Devil himself and must be avoided at all costs. Tobin provides some insight into what might be happening behind the plates of grass, which then cranks the story up a notch into weirdness. It all comes to a head when Becky’s boyfriend Travis (Harrison Gilbertson) also finds his way into the endless meadows as he searches for her. Eventually, all the characters converge into one somewhat open area, and Ross reveals he’s not the nice man he once may have been before he entered the grassy field. Time bends, becomes elastic, and then all hell breaks loose once the power behind the stone jutting from the ground takes its hold on the hapless cast.
For the most, In the Tall Grass is pretty effective in establishing a streamlined version of common King tropes. You will have tragic, subservient wives meeting gruesome ends. You’ll have the plucky heroine who tries her best to manage her way into the nightmare she’s literally walked into. You have your couple of untrustworthy characters who seem to be prey to a larger power — in Cal, you have the brother who loves his sister a bit too much, and in Ross, the archetypical father-villain who in Patrick Wilson finds the perfect actor as a handsome man with the winning smile and a glint of crazy just behind the eyes. Some of the inclusion of multiple timelines seem to exist only in an arbitrary fashion, but if you don’t care about too much logic you should be able to enjoy the premise well. Where the story’s thin premise buckles at the seams is when it presents the creatures haunting the field, and the curious drawings on the rock. It’s a common trop In King’s work, to show the monster in the closet; on cinema, however, less is always more, and omitting this detail from the story would have made it a bit more chilling. As it stands, this is an above average piece of work, with handsome cinematography and solid acting, but not a tremendously compelling work of horror.
LIBERTE, Country: France, Portugal, Spain. Director: Albert Serra. Screenwriter: Albert Serra. Cast: Helmut Berger, Marc Susini, Iliana Zabeth, Theodore Marcade, Baptiste Pinteaux. Languages: French, German, Italian. Runtime: 130 minutes. A New York Film Festival Main Slate and US Premiere. Release Date: TBA.
Mostly Indies Rating: A
Caveat emptor: this film may provoke walkouts. Venture forth with an open mind.
Not since discovering Pasolini ages ago while in college have I come across a film so unabashedly transgressive and willing to push the limits of eroticism to a point when it blurs the line between the imagined and the real, and then the real and the pornographic, and finally, the pornographic that seeks to titillate and the one that verges on the grotesque as Albert Serra’s Liberté. However, for someone like yours truly who at one time was actively involved in the leather scene (minus wigs and makeup), I could say upon viewing his movie, with an arched eyebrow and an expression of worldly cynicism, “Alrighty! That just happened. So much ado for naught. In my world this would be just another regular Saturday night at the dungeon. Not as messy as going outside into the woods and getting dirty, and that is exactly how I prefer it.”
However, in 1774, the time when the events of Liberté takes place, dungeons didn’t exist for consensual purposes and if you were sent to one, it was usually against your will and you pretty much died there, forgotten among the rats and other undesirables of France right before the Revolution of 1789. Just ask Sade, who mastered the art of writing his own brand of transgressive fiction, and who saw the life of day and freedom, oh, never, for most of his life, and until his death in 1814. Forgotten until the 1940s when his work was discovered tucked away, which is probably how he liked it anyway.
So, let’s go to the aforementioned events. You could summarize them in one sentence: One evening, libertines expelled from the court of King Louis the XVI gather in the depths of the forest with a German noble (played by Helmut Berger, the only marquee name of the cast of mostly unknowns) and engage in consensual debauchery.
And that’s it. The entire two and a quarter hours of Liberté is a series of vignettes taking place deep in the countryside (which could offer a sense equal parts privacy and transgression as they could be discovered at any time by a passerby). Some are light, merely verbal exchanges pregnant with a heavy Sadean influence.
In one particular scene somewhat in the middle of the movie two women engage in a discussion, mostly off-screen and in voiceover, about what to do with a weak man. One of them states how she would go by humiliating him over and over because she detests weakness in a man. When the other asks how would she present her affront to God, she replies that she wouldn’t care, and would love to receive “his perversion.” It is a highly erotic exchange, because while you don’t see anything happen and most of the scene is in the dark, your mind is on overdrive, imagining not just the act of humiliation, but that of possible retribution and the woman on the receiving end in ecstatic bliss as she receives her comeuppance. I’m pretty sure Sade would have chuckled at the very idea of not just perverting the divine, but also receiving bliss from it.
Other exchanges, however, are increasingly graphic in content. Here is where you either stay to the end (Albert Serra did ask the audience to stay until the final shot, because there have been walkouts in Cannes and other venues where Liberte has been screened), or decide you just can’t and throw in the towel, never to see Serra’s chosen ending. I wouldn’t go and classify any of these scenes as particularly erotic, but three are a standout; the humiliation of a blonde virgin tied to a tree and doused in buckets of milk. [At least I hope it was milk.] The scene involves only the images of the actress, restrained, her body glistening. The second involves one of the French Duc’s (Marc Susani) getting flogged until he shrieks in pain and ecstasy, and then the same Duc as he gets berated by the Madame de Dumeval (Theodore Marcade).
Now, for the crucial part: is this film recommendable? I would say yes if you dare, once it gets released in cinemas. [It has been acquired for distribution; its release date unknown at the time of this writing.] Nothing happens that is not so awful you can’t see it — and frankly, I have seen war movies and thrillers with more bloody content than anything that transpires here. Much of Serra’s film is strictly auditory as it is, so while two characters (or more) may be involved in a scene of consensual sex, we may hear loud shrieks and moans from a distance and wonder what the hell could be happening. The setting, strictly nocturnal, is perfect for Liberté, and only until the rather weird final scene in which daylight happens (yes, that is all), does light filter onto the trees while the sky remains dark. Liberte is an unclassifiable, but strangely beautiful, abstract exercise in nihilism and freedom posing as a period film indeed.
IT: CHAPTER TWO. Country: USA / Canada. Director: Andy Muschietti. Screenwriter: Gary Dauberman. Based on the novel by Stephen King. Cast: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Bill Skarsgard, Jasden Martell, Wyatt Oleff, Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Teach Grant, Nicholas Hamilton, Javier Botet, Xavier Dolan, Taylor Frey, Molly Atkinson, Joan Gregson, Stephen Bogaert. Language: English. Release date: September 6, 2019. Runtime: 170 minutes.
Mostly Indies rating: A–
Well, it’s here, it stormed into the box office and the story is told. Stephen King can rest knowing that even when the movie version of his much-beloved (and massive) 1986 novel “It” may never see a sufficiently dark and terrifying version without some significant alteration of the source of the horror, it goes without saying that at least the film version comes out swinging.
Truth be told, it is never an easy task to adapt a Stephen King novel. Much of the final story in It, for example, takes place in the astral plane and has ties to his Dark Tower macroverse, that to depict that one lengthy sequence would be next to impossible. Also, to its detriment, how scary can a clown truly be to kids raised on social media, YouTube, and a million other apps that can be conduits for the real horror: child predators? I’m going to have to say that in a way, It the movie is less scary this time, geared to hardcore Stephen King fans who have been reading him since Carrie, Salem’s Lot, and The Shining (the latter two who have yet to receive a truly gripping adaptation), but still, a compulsive watch.
So here we are, not quite back where we left off (although the first sequence, with the young Beverly (Sophia Lillis) apparently underwater, in a scene that recalls the moment she went into the deadlights — which thankfully get much more screen time here. Flash forward to today, 27 years later, when Adrian Mellon (Xavier Dolan) gets the extremely savage end of homophobia and meets an indescribable end at the hands of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), who’s come out from the dark and is, let’s say, “hangry” with a chip on his shoulder. Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), who’s since been devoted to tracking Pennywise’s every move before and after their apparent first defeat (and who seems certifiably bonkers; trauma has a way of clinging onto you well after the horror is over), now has to deliver the stomach-churning phone call to his six other childhood friends, not knowing if they will even respond or take his call. They do, in an excellent montage, the adult Losers are introduced with the barest of backstories presented. Bill (James McAvoy) is a successful horror novel writer who’s books end badly. Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is an abused housewife. Ben. (Jay Ryan) is a successful executive. Richie (Bill Hader, in a standout performance, mind you), is a stand-up comic going through a hard time. Eddie (James Ransone) is a limo driver. And finally, Stan (Andy Bean), who takes the call the hardest.
With the knowledge that It, the creature they once defeated, has returned, the remaining members of the Losers Club reunite in Derry. As it tends to happen, memories, long since repressed and buried, start to resurface, and with that, the ancient traumas, Of course, the question arises, why bother? They’re grown adults, what could they possibly be doing back in the town where they escaped from? Isn’t that what everyone does? Beverly, however, seen in the first frame of the movie, delivers the news: while under the deadlights, she saw them all dead. They have to go back, destroy the past, to be rid of it once and for all, and for them, that means performing the fated Ritual of Chud.
A huge chunk of the movie, from now on, becomes the six of them (well, really five; Mike has been here all along) walking through town, trying to pick up elements from their haunted past, in order to reunite later on. Of all of the solo scenes, Beverly’s was the one that stood out the most simply because her horror — which Pennywise in the novel manipulated) — is too real to ignore. When Pennywise appears to her in the body and shape of her father (Stephen Bogaert), without a dime of prosthetics, it’s more frightening than any of his disguises, which the movie curiously doesn’t use to its advantage. Another scene, this time not involving any one of the main cast members but a little girl who has a mole on her face, is truly terrifying because of its sparseness of special effects and Pennywise’s distorted maw of anticipation.
Overall, It is a solid piece of work that seen as a whole alongside the first movie will reveal a director who understands childhood fears and the genre, but also, reveal flaws in King’s own narrative. It is no secret that King nowadays, free of any editing constraints, has made a habit of producing extremely long works of fiction that go on and on for pages, chapters, even entire sections, without advancing the plot, The motive is to bring forward not just backstory, but a credible universe for people to see where his characters, good, bad, major, and even minor, are coming from. That in the literary world is okay — eventually you realize you will get to where the “meat” of the story is. However when translating into cinema, it just does not work. A lengthy scene where Bill rediscovers his old bike serves one self-indulgent pat-in-the-back moment. It is for fans only. Towards the end we are given a double dose of a similar scene from the first when Bill first encountered Pennywise in the flooded basement and near the end when the Losers go into the sewers. A little editing could have worked.
Also, and I’m just realizing it now: absent from both movies is Derry itself. Derry is supposed to be a haunted small town. Pennywise, a creature who defies explanation and whose presence alone could drive a person insane within seconds, feeds on the town’s residents equally, magnifying their adult prejudices and petty motives until they reach criminal levels (hence, the murder of Adrian Mellon) while still feeding on children. Derry as a character is corruption itself, a tainted place that offers no solace, no comfort, and the nagging feeling that some invisible, omnipresent evil is over them, literally playing them against each other like a puppet master. [It is a theme King started in Salem’s Lot and would revisit again in The Stand and Needful Things.] It’s a crying shame that this wasn’t woven into the fabric of the narrative except for the very first portion of the 2017 movie. It would have made the entire setting even more disturbing for the adults who come back, making their return to trauma even more horrible to stomach.
And lastly, presenting Pennywise continually as a clown eventually wears itself thin. In the book, he (it) was anything: a constant shapeshifter who was out for revenge against the “others” who had maimed it. At least, the battle of wills is done in a striking, clever, and even poignant way, something I would not have seen coming. So, for all its missteps, which even involve the use of CGI to make some of the kids look younger than they do and some awful use of Javier Botet as a bouncing horror that threatens Jessica Chastain, It delivers, does not include room for a potential sequel, and is now, over.
READY OR NOT. Country, USA. Directors: Matt Bettinelly-Olpin and Tyler Gillett. Screenwriters: Guy Busick, Ryan Murphy. Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O’Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie McDowell, Nicky Guadagni. Language: English. Runtime: 95 minutes. Venue: AMC 25.
I’m fairly confident that someone in this writer-director team had to sit down, think on a follow up to Southbound, and see what stuck. My guess is that someone probably jokingly said, “Hey, imagine if you got married, right? And on your wedding night you discover that your entire family wants to kill you?”
And to be fair, I’m sure it is funny albeit dark of course if you decide to go all the way and make an entire film revolving on one family’s attempts to off the unlucky spouse in rather gruesome ways (and often needing YouTube tutorials to demo how you would use your weapon of choice). I myself, liked the trailer, thought it was fun enough to go and tune my brain out, and for the most, it worked. As completely silly as Ready or Not looks and seems, I managed to sit back and let the games begin.
Look, this is not a movie you’re going to sit back and discuss amongst movie-going friends (unless those friends probably don’t go to movies to see something good other than to enjoy carnage of which this movie has in droves and then some). It’s just not going to happen. This is a brain fart, something that you buy out of impulse knowing full well you’ll never use, a moment of weakness from your regimented diet of protein and lo-carbs where you said, “Fuck it! I deserve this entire slice of pepperoni and seven layers of cheese and goddamnit I’m gonna have it!”
And there you have it. Ready or Not is, satanic rituals aside, wickedly fun. Samara Weaving comes out smelling like a lot of bloodshed and has a career ahead of her in better films. The films only weak point? Henry Czerny, not in it for the camp it seems but playing his part as though this were high drama and trying to act so perverted in one scene it came out rather awful. Andie McDowell, never a great actress but a reliable female presence in the late 80s and 90s, delivers and cashes in a paycheck and looks incredible for 61. What else can I say? It’s playing in theaters; go see it and have a laugh, you totally deserve it.
LUZ. Country, Germany. Director: Tilman Singer. Screenwriter: Tilman Singer. Cast: Luana Velis, Jan Bluthardt, Julia Riedler, Nadja Stubiger, Johannes Benecke, Lili Lorenz. Language: German, Spanish. Runtime: 70 minutes. Venue: IFC Center, NYC, NY. Rating: B
The ironically titled Luz opens with a wide shot of a police precinct. A woman practically drags herself in, serves herself a soda, and is about to leave when she blurts out an incomprehensible question to the clerk in the lobby. When he doesn’t reply, she repeats the question in an ear-splitting shriek. And that sets the tone for Tilman Singer’s college project-turned movie Luz, which hit its (very) limited release last week in NYC, LA, and other cities around the country for its one to two week engagement.
The woman in question is Luz, a cab driver, but we’ll get back to her in a bit. The movie cuts to a scene in a bar where a blond woman named Nora (Julia Riedler) is eyeballing a man (Jan Bluthardt) nursing a drink. She aggressively hits on him, but her intentions are a bit murky at best. She proceeds to tell the man, who we learn is Dr. Rossini, a story of a woman she knew back in Chile named Luz. Both she and Luz performed some Satanic ritual to summon up a demon, and now it wants Luz. Dr. Rossini seems completely hypnotized by Nora’s gaze (hypnosis will figure prominently from here on), and allows her to lead him to the bathroom, where some weird exchange takes place. [It sure seems like she’s masturbating him, but we don’t get to see that — only his shaking body after she kisses him and sends in a bright light into his horrified, gaping mouth.
Weird enough? Don’t worry; it gets better. Back at the precinct, Dr. Rossini is about to commence a regression therapy to extract a confession from Luz. Luz, who has been up to now incoherently babbling some reverse prayer in Spanish, begins to recount how it is that she got to this place. And then. Singer lets whatever was hinted in the background take center stage, and we’re in the middle of a hazy nightmare shot in thick shades of grey fog that continue to suggest something evil is in the midst, more felt than seen, seconds from announcing itself.
Singer never lets Luz go off the rails like most other possession horror movies do because of a need to raise the body count and produce shock after shock for shock purposes alone. There is a thick pulse running through the film, and it reaches an early peak before plateauing somewhere in the middle, then building again until the movie reaches its nightmarish conclusion. I don’t think that it could have been scarier than it was, though. This is exactly the type of fucked up shit our minds and subconscious throws at us while we dive deep into sleep, and when we wake up, we can’t quite place the pieces together. In that sense, Luz “makes sense” and illuminates a dark event reaching its natural conclusion. It will produce shivers and a sense of unreality. And frankly, this is all I need for a movie like Luz to take effect. It’s sparse set, minimal players, and brief running time give it the right amount of dread needed to make Singer’s film be a memorable entry into both the cinematic world and the horror genre.
THE DEAD DON’T DIE. Country, USA. Director: Jim Jarmusch. Cast: Adam Driver, Bill Murray, Chloe Sevigny, Tilda Swinton, Tom Waits, Danny Glover, Steve Buscemi, Caleb Landry Jones, Rosie Perez, Ester Balint, Larry Fessenden, Carol Kane, Iggy Pop, Selena Gomez. Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch. Language: English. Runtime: 102 minutes. Venue: AMC Newport Mall. Rating: C
Eventually, it had to happen. Sooner or later every director at one point tries to delve into the horror genre and what better way to do it than the zombie flick? Jim Jarmusch isn’t actually a stranger to horror; in 2014 he directed TIlda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as languid lovers lounging in the middle of Detroit, barely alive, observing a world overtaken by zombies (i. e. “humans”). Fast forward five years ahead and Jarmusch returns to the genre in a generic and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny new movie, The Dead Don’t Die (which is also a song performed by Sturgill Simpson), a tepid take on Night of the Living Dead that features a laundry list of everyone who at one or various times worked with Jarmusch, and some social commentary on the woes of society through the staging of the action in small town Centerville. So, instead of two vampire lovers in a world they don’t recognize, we now get two yokely cops (Bill Murray and Adam Driver), with a female thrown in for scream queen moments (Chloe Sevigny), also commenting on a world that seems to have gone to hell without them knowing it.
For the most part, The Dead Don’t Die works even when the entire feature film feels as though Jarmusch left it at the level of sketch other than fully develop it. There are so many characters featured and all seem to demand as much attention as they do in their short screen time, I can’t see how this wasn’t a compendium of shorter sequences in style of Night on Earth tied together by the zombie thread.
First we have Tom Waits scuttling around the forest in full bushman regalia, observing everything happen through a safe vantage point. If anything, an despite not being credited first, he seems to be the true protagonist. Next we have Tilda Swinton in a role that makes her to be the resident eccentric who not only works at a funeral home and applies garish amounts of make up to the recently deceased but also has a penchant for sword fighting and walking in severe right angles wherever she goes. Swinton is clearly in her own movie zone, and later on it becomes clear why in a clever but WTF moment that basically, performs a magic trick and leaves us scratching our heads.
Other characters paint a rather picturesque canvas of small town life: Steve Buscemi as a stand-in for every MAGA supporter you would love to hate; Danny Glover and Caleb Landry Jones as unlikely partners fighting zombies in a video store, and Selena Gomez, Rosie Perez, and a gaggle of others making appearances to either enhance the mood or be sitting ducks for the insanity that is about to happen.
The one thing the undead have in common is that aside from craving human flesh they also have specific interests; the first ones to pop up (played by Iggy Pop and Sara Driver) want coffee, a dead woman (Carol Kane of all people) wants chardonnay, and others cling on to smartphones hopelessly seeking for WiFi. It’s a clever little commentary on society and how undead we have become, addicted to our habits, our pleasures, even our wireless connection. It’s this, it seems, that may be behind Jarmusch’s observation of humanity as a whole planet gone to hell that still deserves a laugh. He even extends his sense of humor in a pivotal moment towards the film’s end that is the movie’s only truly standout scene. It’s so left field that it threatens to stop the picture and morph into something closer to Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles’ climactic sequence.. It’s almost as if he were saying, “Look, don’t take this too seriously. It’s only a momentary lapse into crazy. Wink.” While this does indeed work (I heard several loud guffaws in the audience and I myself did a double take), it’s not quite enough to fill in for the movie’ overall feel of unfinished product. It’s because of this that in the end, The Dead Don’t Die ultimately delivers at a superficial, forgettable level equivalent to a low chuckle and a “Meh.”
MA.Country: USA. Director: Tate Taylor. Cast: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Giani Paolo, Dante Brown, Tanyell Waivers, Luke Evans, Missi Pyle, Allison Janney. Screenwriter: Scotty Landes. Language: English. Runtime 98 minutes. US Release date: May 28, 2019. Venue: AMC River 21, Chicago, IL. Rating B.
I’m going to say it. The sole reason I went to see Tate Taylor’s new movie was Octavia Spencer. From the second that the trailer hit YouTube (and then endlessly at movie theaters; you just could not get away from it, especially if it was a horror movie), I realized that a) I needed to see it because it looked like a helluva lot of fun, and b) hag-horror and the psycho-biddy seem to be making a comeback of sorts. Anyone who saw Neil Jordan’s Greta will undoubtedly agree with me… and see the similarities between the two.
I also can’t but notice an upswing of horror movies with African-American actors in the lead in the types of roles previously denied by them. Remember when up until recently, in any horror movie, they were the first to die a gruesome death? There is a long list of movies in which that happens. And then came a little movie that became the breakout hit of the year, landed a Best Movie and Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards, and cemented Jordan Peele as a director to pay attention to. That movie? Get Out.
Octavia Spencer herself has stated that she’s never been given a meaty role as a lead in any movie, and having seen many of her films, I have to agree: just recently she nabbed yet another Best Supporting Actress nomination for Guillermo del Toro’s overrated The Shape of Water, in which her character utters sassy lines and sports a lot of attitude, but where she equally has little effect to the plot other than provide a solid foil to Sally Hawkins meek, mute character. Often I think, what if it were the other way around? What if Octavia had been the one who came across, and then bonded, with this odd sea creature, and gone as far as risking her life to shield it from inhuman experiments? Would the movie have worked?
I’m going to have to say that in Hollywood’s mind, which is still entrenched in ideals of beauty, perhaps it would have been a much different film. Hollywood seems content to still place women who aren’t traditional looking in roles where they either suffer nobly or provide some solid support, as long as they don’t actually lead the film. So for Spencer to play against the types of roles she has become known for (and which all have garnered her three Oscar nominations and a win for her first for Tate Taylor’s The Help, I say good for her. She’s clearly having a great time playing the part of Sue Ann, a meek woman who works for a loudmouth veterinarian in small town, Ohio who harbors a terrible secret.
Taylor’s movie doesn’t introduce her right away, though: he gives us some significant time to enter the story proper and it’s through the eyes of do-gooder Maggie (newcomer Diana Silvers, who also has a small but pivotal part in Olivia Wilde’s movie Booksmart, also in theaters). Maggie and her mom (Juliette Lewis, offering some solid support) also live in Ohio due to Maggie’s mom having become divorced and moving back to make ends meet as a waitress at a casino. Maggie faces being the new girl in school, but instead of getting teased by a group of ‘cool kids’ who notice her, they befriend her, and it’s not long before she’s hanging out with them, trying to score some liquor. It is here when they meet Sue Ann, a veterinary technician who on a lark takes pity on the kids and buys them some beer and invites them to come to her place, hang out in the basement, and have some fun. The lone caveat: they must never venture upstairs.
That warning sign — and then another, when one of the boys accidentally crosses the line with Sue Ann, a thing which prompts the first appearance of a gun and her volatile temper which she keeps under wraps at all times — should have sent shivers up their spines and made them turn tail especially when a stranger offers you to shack up at their basement and the house seems a bit run-down. But nope. the kids are anxious to let loose and get drunk, Sue Ann quickly acquiesces, and lets them have their night. Soon enough, Sue Ann experiences a resurgence in popularity among these high school kids, and she is clearly loving it. However, her benevolence hides something a little more insidious. and Maggie, who has noticed that after a night of alcoholic excess in which she passed out she is missing her earrings, begins to mistrust Sue Ann, and keeping a distance.
Maggie is right in doing so. She senses that Sue Ann is a bit off and we can clearly see it. You see, despite Sue Ann enjoying being the center of entertainment and being affectionately called “Ma” by these teens, she’s haunted by the past. It’s this past that starts to gradually resurface. The ball of hatred and resentment that Sue Ann keeps inside of her and under control now veers dangerously close to combustion. Tate Taylor and Scotty Landis take their time to add more and more tension to a situation pregnant with retaliatory violence, so when it does happen, it’s almost a relief. However, it is a shame that for a genre that demands that the story go dark and jump off an abyss, somehow, they chose not to do so. With this kind of movie you sort of expect extremes and even torture porn, but Ma sidesteps it, and leaves you wanting a bit more. However, as I said before, this This often derivative, silly hagsploitation movie works only and exclusively because of Octavia Spencer’s sheer commitment to the genre, bringing equal parts Earth-mother and a victim carrying a deep pain within herself who comes back as an abuser tied up into one sick concoction of a character.
Also, as a side note, Allison Janney, who last year won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her part as Tonya Harding’s abrasive as fuck mom in I, Tonya, shows up for what amounts to maybe three lines of sheer bitchery as the one-note abrasive Doctor Brooks for whom Sue Ann works for. That’s basically it. She does next to nothing other than verbally abuse Sue Ann within an inch of her existence. It’s comedic gold, and a simple illustration of the wheels working with this movie in which Sue Ann is truly a miserable person trapped in a cycle of abuse and no way out but with a much needed cry of revenge.
So now that Ma is off Octavia Spencer’s checklist, I’m hoping that she can command better in lead roles suited for her talent.
I’ll have to admit; I did not have much hopes for this adaptation of Stephen King’s classic novel of childhood fears because let’s face it, most movies adapted from King’s novels or short stories wind up being complete messes, or at least, much lesser than the sum of their parts. As a matter of fact, out of King’s enormous output of what seems to be about a novel or two a year (and mind you, for his novels keep getting fatter and fatter and more verbose by the second), sometimes one or two make it to above average, or simply good, but would you remember it come tomorrow? Possibly not. Would it scare you as much as his books? Nope.
However, there is always that one movie that comes alive like Pennywise feeding cycles. First it was Carrie, but it had Brian de Palma, a master of suspense in the vein of Hitchcock who tacked on an ending that wasn’t in the original but virtually created the Final Scare that works today just as it did in 1976. Kubrick’s version of The Shining is still considered a controversial good movie due to the fact that nowhere in the movie is the essence of the novel; the bare bones of the story are there, sure, but essentially, this is Kubrick’s imagination of what would have been his own horror movie, and it is one long, trip down a long corridor where . . . well, You know.
And on, and so forth, the 80s brought about one movie based on a Stephen King novel or short story compilation, Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone is horror at its coldest, Creepshow had that cockroach episode that on its own made me want to seal up my place over and over again and drench it with bug repellent. Christine did zero for me; it was a silly movie adapted from an insane novel that along with Tommy-knockers, seem to have been produced on a drug trip. One had to wait until 1990 to see another psychological horror novel come to chilling life in Misery. That movie made Kathy Bates; it won her the Oscar — a feat still unmatched since horror movies (and performances such as hers) don’t glean awards. It’s another example of the movie being better and more compact than the novel, which had a somewhat anticlimactic end, a thing King has a tendency to do now, which is what I think his way of saying, “Sometimes you just don’t get that happy ending.”
For several years I’d been reading the hype leading to the making of It, and I just didn’t think much of it until I began seeing teaser trailers, pictures of the new Pennywise. Reader, I have to say, when I walked into the theater I had less than average expectations. I thought, well, there goes another two hours of my life in a movie that even with today’s technology just can’t quite capture the spirit of such a rich and rewarding coming of age book.
How mistaken I was!
From the second the movie opens, I can’t explain it: it felt like something magical was happening. The death of Georgie Denbrough is captured in its own time capsule, the camera tracking every movement as he runs after his paper boat (that older brother Bill made for him). It is, to say the least, the slow, progressive awakening of the unnamed thing that has been lurking under the city and within its fabric for ages untold. I was perhaps slightly disappointed that, like in King’s novel, the boat didn’t make its reappearance after Georgie had been killed, but what I wasn’t prepared for was that it would, and in a way I could not have imagined.
That, in a nutshell, is the experience I had while watching It: a movie that features no adults, but only kids in a town that seems to move on in a daze even as tragedies as horrific as Georgie’s take place. We get introduced to the seven major characters — extremely well defined and acted — and see what haunts them the most, and how events stemming from their ferocious, relentless bullying bring them together in shared fear for what they know and don’t know, and the friendship that blossoms as if they’d known each other for ages. We also get sight of the bullies, each of them just as horrifying as the monster in the sewers of Derry, always in wait for a chance to exact their own insecurities (enforced by their own hateful parents) on these otherwise non-violent kids.
We also get to see who, or what, is doing the haunting and oh, my God, does Skarsgaard not disappoint. I know that Tim Curry was as freaky and frightening as they come in the made-for-TV miniseries, and you would think that the movie would perhaps shy away from showing Pennywise in his clown form and remain only focused on what form of fear It appears to the kids. I’ve never seen a clown this completely disorienting, terrifying, and plain paralyzing, as this one. There is not a second when it’s not clear that everything about Pennywise suggest something so completely evil it’s almost unmentionable. That It only appears to the kids (and uses its powers to influence the bullies and the adults in town) makes for a greater adversary, and we move from scene after scene of terrible things happening to kids to more terrible things happening to kids with relentless speed. It is a deadly foe to even mess with, as the children learn in a scene involving a projector camera or going into the infamous house on Neibolt Street, but the seven children at the center of the movie have made a decision to, understanding what it is or not, to destroy it, and hopefully emerge unscathed.
Horror has always been a way to explore themes that otherwise would make for a dull or violent drama. All of the fears that these kids have is as credible as reality. Because the timeline of It has now moved to 1989, the fears are less drive in theater and more grounded in the mind and the heart. In Beverly Marsh’s case, her fear is centered on her awful dysfunctional father and her twisted relationship with him. In a way, clown aside, this is the story of kids. Good or bad, perhaps with the exception of the minor but well defined monstrous character of Patrick Hockstetter, all of the kids are victims of some form of neglect from their home and the world around them. All of them have witnessed horrific sights aside from what lack they experience at home. Somehow, horror has made them come together to face their own fears and move on into the next phase of their lives and the movie soars with wonderful moments of great beauty and earthy humor before sinking into that otherworldly place that is underground Derry, where It lives.
Reader, if you can believe this, I walked out of the theater in tears. Never has a horror movie left me in a state of near bliss and hopefulness. If this is what Chapter one can bring, I can only imagine what Chapter two will do two years from now. From what I read, it will get very, very dark. And I can’t wait.
Maybe it’s me, but this has been a weak year for horror. If it weren’t for the releases of The Blackcoat’s Daughter, Get Out!, Raw, and even M Night Shyamalan’s Split I would be hard pressed to find anything that I could recommend as a horror movie to pay attention to. I guess that is something that will always happen — one year you have an overload of films like in the 2014-2016 period; then you move into a less active period where films of a certain type come, but few and far between.
THE DEVIL’S CANDY
Director: Sean Byrne
Runtime: 79 minutes
(4 / 5)
Sean Byrne is a director to pay attention to. His second feature film, The Devil’s Candy, doesn’t even remotely try to break new grounds but what it lacks in originality — I mean, how many times have we seen the concept of a nuclear family being slowly eroded away by the ghosts in the walls of a haunted house? — it is pregnant in atmosphere and a burgeoning sense of dread. The Hellmans (interesting choice for a family surname) have moved into their new Texas home to start anew. Dad (Ethan Embry, currently in Grace and Frankie and a dead ringer for a younger Matthew McConaghey) is an artist who, despite his penchant for using death metal as an inspiration, are brightly lit things –visual Mendelssohn if you want to see it that way. Soon, however, he senses that time is slipping away from him and has no memory of why his current painting is as dark and black as night and he seems to be hearing whispers coming at him from the walls . . . although to anyone who’s seen a horror movie involving the Satanic, it should come as no surprise once the inverted cross appears. It’s almost like the showing of the Chekhovian gun: something has to go off.
Luckily, it’s not Dad. No, Dad keeps his sanity even when visions of evil start polluting his mind, and that’s good because for a moment it seemed to be like he would soon be ranting like a loon, hunched over, and attempting to chop his family to bits. When fear comes, it arrives under the form of a strange man (Pruitt Taylor Vince, who by default has demented psycho writ large over his face and quivering eyes). His character, Ray Smilie (again, those names!) used to live there. He wants his house back. Plain and simple. And he’s not going to stop until he’s back inside . . . and the Hellman’s are out.
One of the things The Devil’s Candy (horribly titled, but what the heck) has going for it is, like I said, its sense of dread and its atmosphere. Not a jump-scare scene in sight (and the opportunities for this to happen are all over the place) but a mounting sense that the presence of this deranged man (who keeps getting closer and closer to them) is driving a wedge of terror between the Hellman’s. And then there’s that painting that continues to morph under Hellman’s brush. Before you know it there is something monstrous, leering out at him from its own place, almost defying him to leave. Byrne mounts the tension until his thread snaps and sends all the pieces flying in all different directions. He doesn’t overdo it — this is not that kind of horror film — but delivers just about the right dose of horror, and that to me is a good thing.
The Devil’s Candy was just released on Netflix this past week.
DIG TWO GRAVES
Director: Hunter Adams
Runtime: 84 minutes
(3.5 / 5)
It’s never good to bring the dead back to life no matter how attached you were to them in life, but ever since The Monkey’s Paw and on-wards people in horror stories continue to test the waters against their better judgement. This is the premise of Dig Two Graves, a smart little horror movie that looks glossy and expensive when in fact it’s a low-budget indie. Jake, a young girl living with her grandfather, Sheriff Waterhouse, loses her older brother Sean when they head out to a quarry to jump into the lake below and just at the last minute Jake falters, leaving Sean to jump, and then drown. The incident affects her so deeply that all she can think of is rectifying the mistake. Here is when three strangers in period-wear approach Jake as she walks home from school one day and inform her that they can bring her brother back . . . but at a price. It’s a steep one, and one that she can’t bring herself to do. As time ticks by the three men decide to confront Jake’s mother and amp up the pressure, This sets in motion a chain of events that tie up another series of events that transpired thirty years ago and has come to haunt Waterhouse and his granddaughter.
I’ve been saying over and over again that horror doesn’t need a big budget to work–it just requires a solid story and good actors who can deliver. This, Dig Two Graves has in spades. With Ted Levine as Waterhouse, for once not playing a bad guy but a man conflicted over events that happened perhaps due to sheer prejudice against foreigners and were already out of his control. I also loved the look and feel of the movie — at times it somewhat felt like a Stephen King work when he still wrote shorter, muscular, atmospheric works. The movie doesn’t waste a frame and sets you in on a troubled household and a traumatized girl who is now being accosted by strange men. The flashbacks don’t over-narrate the movie; if anything, they fulfill that elusive task of informing people about their relations to others in times of stress and is own. So, all I have left to say is that for its genre, Dig Two Graves should be proud of himself and so should the director and cast members that everything turned out the way it did — it’s that good, it’s high quality, and while maybe just a bit strident around the edges, it manages to deliver every shiver, every uneasy moment with aplomb.
Dig Two Graves is on Netflix and other online platforms.
WE ARE THE FLESH (TENEMOS LA CARNE)
Director: Emiliano Rocha Minter
Runtime: 80 minutes
(3 / 5)
Horror will always, it seems, be the starting point for any and every director wanting to make their mark on the world, and why shouldn’t it be? When you can shock audiences so completely that they start to wonder if you’re some aberration from another time, then it’s safe to say you’ve made it. Look no further than David Lynch and David Cronenberg; whose works have always been linked to the macabre and gory. When I saw Eraserhead and even a couple of Lynch’s shorts made around the same time period I felt as though my head had been put through the ringer. I didn’t know what to make of it. The movie made no sense to me — and perhaps that is what Lynch set out to do, make an incomprehensible mood piece equal parts science fiction and horror. Emiliano Rocha Minter is young and he’s made a shocking movie that bears a visual resemblance to George Bataille erotic piece “Story of the Eye” and also carries within the dark, erotic spirit of Sade. Clearly the man has his own influences — I could read a lot of Kubrick circa Clockwork Orange, and some of the sex scenes look a lot like the type Gaspar Noe filmed for his movie Love (minus the yuckiness). Now, the story . . . you have to see it to believe it, and once you’ve seen this, you can’t un-see. There is no reference to time, place, and as a matter of fact it wouldn’t be far fetched to place this picture in Hell. We don’t know who these characters are — but perhaps that is the point: they could be anyone with even a passing interest in evil who, once the floodgates were open, could morph into a crazed monster capable of depravity. The presence and performances of Noe Hernandez (who talks non stop, screams, bangs on a drum, masturbates, dies, has sex while dead, and comes back to life, all onscreen) and Maria Evoli, who once her character gets acquainted with another man’s body soon develops into a dark, writhing mess closer to living mud than human (and those screams of ecstasy . . . unsettling), is a sight to behold and literally makes this movie work, as hard it is for me to admit that “this picture works” but . . . it’ s a horror movie, and horror should make you not just scared but absolutely petrified and repulsed. You will either tolerate this film until the very last scene (which by then you will scratch your head and wonder what the heck happened) or be unable to take it halfway through and click stop. Sometimes you need a movie like this to shake people up and take notice. Well . . . Mr. Rocha Minter just announced himself.
BOTTOM OF THE WORLD
Director: Richard Sears
Runtime: 85 minutes
(3 / 5)
The only place to find this film is online through Netflix and other platforms; it only played for one week at Village East last winter and was shipped to VOD platforms almost immediately. It’s too bad because this slight little incursion into nowhere is quite a piece. It features two people, a boy and a girl named Alex and Scarlett (Douglas Smith and Jena Malone) running from their past and into a future in LA. That’s all find and dandy until they have to make a pit stop at a motel on Route 66 in the middle of nowhere. Once there, Scarlett confesses about something pretty horrible that she did when she was younger and reader, it is pretty disgusting, Of course she dismisses it as some form of light commentary, but once they get back on the road she begins to have some severe pains. They have to go back, and Alex then realizes the following day Malone is missing . . . and the television, which had been on since the previous evening and had upset her, is on some religious channel. The preacher (Ted Levine again) isn’t just preaching: he’s eyeing him. The appearance of a hooded stranger (with a horribly dubbed voice to make him sound sinister) looks like the movie will take a reroute into The Vanishing territory, but there are other twists and turns . . .
Again, David Lynch, via Lost Highway, is the prime influence for this little movie that has elements of horror but of the surreal kind. Nothing is what it seems in this movie, and then the plot makes a hard left turn and becomes another feature. It’s a clever little gimmick but one that I think speaks volumes about the concept of guilt and the inability to handle one’s actions from the past. Jena Malone is pretty vampy and enigmatic in her role — or should I say roles? and Douglas Smith tries a bit too hard, especially during Scarlett’s disappearance, but is solid as is Ted Levine, an actor who oozes menace, but might not be what he looks like.
THE UNTAMED (LA REGION SALVAJE)
Mexico / France
Director: Amat Escalante
Runtime: 95 minutes
(2 / 5)
Part creature-feature, part denouncement of homophobia in Mexico, part rural sci-fi horror with shades of Cronenberg’s incursion into body horror, Amat Escalante’s movie La region salvaje (The Untamed) is ambitious in scope but doesn’t seem to ellicit anything other than mild boredom from its cast of new actors, none of them who seem to know how to emote correctly, which leaves you only with lush scenery and a creature that looks like a squid with a head that (I thought) resembled Ziggy. This creature, it seems, is all sex and pleasure, but wouldn’t you know, humans can’t handle all that pleasure and become addicted to it like mice to coke. Plus, to add to the mix, the creature only seems to prefer women although we never do learn what happened to a gay character upon his first visit to the den of flesh where the monster lives. Tonally the movie is all over the map — we go from an almost documentary feel to indie drama at its most mechanic to then a stilted domestic drama without any say whatsoever as to if it’s going to work. This is the second Mexican horror film to focus solely on the sex part of it, and while that might not be a terrible idea, here it lands with a thud. but the flat direction, soap-opera level acting, and almost blatant disengagement in everyone who seems to be involved in this production delivers the goods–just not fresh or interesting enough to keep you awake.
Tbe Untamed is still playing exclusively at the IFC Center in NYC. It’s DVD release is yet to be determined.
THE BIG SICK
Director: Pat Healy
Runtime: 85 minutes
Mostlyindies Grading: C–
Bad movies exist in all shapes and sizes and have only one purpose: to make you wonder what went wrong that they deserve to be considered such. Maybe it was the direction that was too flat, or too uninviting; perhaps the acting was so bad it bordered on camp; there’s a laundry list of possible misfires that could have contributed to the failure of a movie to deliver and be remembered in a good way. Tribeca, a film festival that often showcases films by new and rising directors, sometimes takes the word ‘new’ and runs with it; for a festival that showcases nearly 100 films of all shapes, sizes, and genres during its two week run in April, it can have the luxury to show several turkeys and still get away with it (and make a neat profit).
Take Me, an incompetent comedy-thriller-character piece directed and acted by Pat Healy, an indie character actor whose most notable credit was being the creepy-as-fuck voice of the ‘cop’ in the Craig Zobel indie thriller Compliance from 2012, falls under that nebulous category of bad film that makes it to Tribeca because, film, right? To explain: somehow, the movie gets selected, bows at Tribeca, and lands in VOD distribution (although it has a guaranteed slot at the midnight hour at IFC for a week or two). There, it thrives at a price of 6.99, a price much preferable than its 15 dollar tag in theaters, and people like me and you can watch without feeling cheated out of our hard-earned money and forget about it moments later. Not to digress about the film, but I guess it just shows that anyone with access to a camera can make a movie, but hey, what do I know. Let’s just say, this is one smelly turkey.
To keep it short, the premise is almost identical to the one Neil LaBute presented in his much superior Some Velvet Morning (a movie I highly recommend you watch on Prime for free if you haven’t; it’s that good). The crucial difference is that of subtlety. LaBute’s little film is a masterclass in restraint that threatens to explode between the two actors cohabiting a tense New York apartment and with dialog that melts from their viperous lips; Take Me offers no such gifts in dialog or performances and is basically blunt-force trauma masquerading as edgy cinema. From the word go we know what is happening; Healy runs an agency that pretends to kidnap people for a space of 8 hours as fetish — basically, an S & M company in which the person will be abducted, tortured, and released, all for a fee that Healy will collect. This time, however, he gets a call from a woman, Anna St Clair (Schilling) who wants to disappear for a weekend and is not afraid to get slapped around. She’s willing to pay him a plum sum upfront, mind you.
Healy takes the offer, and while the abduction sequence is still disturbing to see as it’s filmed dead on, and it’s followed by an interrogation sequence that while bizarre is still jarring, it never really makes us feel that this is something real (the movie has a lengthy prologue, and as if to nail it, another explanatory scene, with the intention of letting us know what we’re in for). Something starts to emerge in the fallout of the two actor’s encounter. It looks for a good while that Anna might not even know why she’s in the predicament and a news item seems to confirm that. Healy wonders if he’s in over his head, and tries to work things out with Anna, but Anna shifts from victim to temptress so quickly, and we never truly connect with Healy’s character, that it becomes impossible to watch except from a distance and look at the clock to see how much time there is left to this.
It is a shame because there are a couple of moments when Take Me adds little spark to its narrative: there is a side character, Healy’s sister (Alicia Delmore), who leaves a comic impression so strong that one would wish the movie had brought her in to complicate matters to a boiling degree. However, the two leads are so unsympathetic in every way that we just get to watch them go through the motions and attempt to out-guess where they’ll go next and what will the story turn into. A third act power reversal proves little cleverness in the plot procedures, and by the time the credits start rolling, I felt as though my time had been wasted by a story that didn’t quite pull it together. Take Me is not the movie you want to see if you like smart thrillers. For that, stick to The Game, or Some Velvet Morning.
HOUNDS OF LOVE
Director: Ben Young
Runtime: 108 minutes
Mostlyindies grading: B+
Inspired, it seems, by the Moorhouse Murders, a series of crimes committed by David and Catherine Birnie who abducted, raped, tortured, and killed four women (their fifth was unsuccessful) in the 1980s, Hounds of Love is a gritty exploration of the darkest forms of love between two psychopaths addicted to their own perversions. The opening is a shocker for its combination of slow-motion images of girls playing volleyball in a Perth high school, while a couple, John and Evelyn White (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth) stalk them in a vehicle. Cut to a scene later in the middle of the afternoon as the couple approaches one of the girls as she walks home and offer her a ride. The girl accepts. We later see shots of her, dead, in the White’s home. It’s all done in one short chilling series of takes, effectively laying out how matter-of-fact something as horrifying as snuffing the life out of a person can me under the right circumstances.
And of course, once is never enough. We’ll never know how many murders the Whites may have committed but it’s clear that where there was one, there will be more. And, sure enough, shortly after we get introduced to Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), a troubled teenager angry over the split between her parents Maggie and Trevor (Susie Porter and Damian de Montemas), we see her on her way to a party while staying with her mother and getting lured into the White’s vehicle. The abduction sequence is so brilliantly done, because it starts out as casual conversation between neighbors, evolves into an offer that plays onto Vicki’s own innocence, then lands her into the nightmare hell that is the White house as they, in one static shot, chain Vicki onto a bed while she kicks and screams for help.
Luckily, Ben Young, the director behind this explosive debut picture, isn’t content to turn this into another version of exploitation or abduction porn. Vickie may be young but she’s not naive and look for her interactions with Evelyn to unsettle her and perhaps by doing so, secure her own freedom. Look for how delicate certain scenes between Vicki and John are handled — yes, they are perverse, but then again, how can one approach what must be suburban hell where death is certain without venturing into queasy territory? Where the movie plays strongest is in focusing on Evelyn and John and their twisted dynamics: Evelyn, implied to be a willing victim who’s allowed herself to be a puppet for John’s deviant passions, rants and rages at the very thought that Vicki could be a possible replacement in a scene where John takes Vicki into a room but locks the doors, leaving Evelyn the third wheel. John meanwhile, continues to deliver promises to kill the girl . . . when in fact he has no intention of doing so.
Hounds of Love won’t be for everybody due to its subject matter, a topic that has become almost ubiquitous on Discovery ID (if you follow some of their shows about evil women or twisted couples). There is always danger to overdo the sexual violence against a younger person and on at least one occasion it gets almost too hard to watch. However, this is a strong, muscular debut picture that is much more restrained even in its more harrowing moments. It’s to its success that it also has a trio of actors committed not only to the ugliness of the situation at hand but at their psychological make-up, Add to that a slight twist that builds to a remarkably suspenseful crescendo and you have yourselves one damn good movie and a director to pay attention to.
Hounds of Love is available on VOD via Amazon Prime. Take Me is on Netflix On Demand.