THE TRAGEDY OF JANUARY: UNDERWATER, THE TURNING, AND ALTERNATIVE Options to view in ARTHOUSE THEATERS, Part I

Kristen Stewart is not having it in Undrwater.

It’s truly a thing to witness, this turn into the New Year. December, as its wont, always brings with it the tradition of releasing Oscar contenders right until Christmas Day, many good, some not so good, and among them, caught in the middle of the shuffle, a small roster of arty films that will probably barely make a dent in box-office but still manage to have enough of a magnetic pull to bring in an audience.

And then, the second January comes ringing, the moment the ball drops, the confetti whirls, people embrace and exchange toasts and wish each other a Happy New Year, something odd happens. Like the
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From movies like Clemency and Portrait of a Lady on Fire the movie parade takes a screeching halt and begins serving you with sheer garbage of the likes that should never, ever been seen, or rented, but deleted and forgotten, forever.

It’s as if movie studios had no idea how to market a movie that perhaps had ambition but didn’t find a test audience gullible enough to sell. Or perhaps the movie was so terrible that it got shelved for a few and quietly “placed” in a few multiplexes without any warning whatsoever. Think of this as the crap stores mark down to bargain basement prices when they decide to go into “Everything! Must! Go!” mode, and there you are, the unsuspecting client, walking into a nightmare that looks somewhat promising on the outside but reveals all its flaws before you’ve even set foot in your house. And now, there you are, face reddening, blood boiling, realizing you bought a defective product and there are no returns.

So imagine the same for movies. While Little Women and [the aforementioned] Parasite still play to packed houses, you check in to watch something new, easy, maybe an okay thriller or a cheap comedy. If that’s all there is, so be it, and with those cool AMC Stubs points, th movie will cost you zero dollars. [You’ll pay it back with the food you buy anyway.]

So for bargain basement entertainment, take… Underwater, for example. Here we have a movie that stars Kristen Stewart with a platinum Eton cut the makes her look a little like Jean Seberg, the 60s actress whom she plays in the biopic Seberg (which also flew under the radar last November to mild reviews; I’ll have to give it a look-see once it hits Video on Demand platforms). Underwater is in the realm of sci-fi/horror genre, which is okay for me, and it tells the story of a crew of scientists manning a drilling station located off the Marianas that encounter some unsavory creatures with a taste for human meat, and why not, really. It’s almost guaranteed that the moment a crew gets the task of exploring into some remote area of the globe shit has to hit the fan, and then we have the law of economy in which one by one, the entire cast goes bye-bye in often gruesome ways. It’s basically a golden rule of these type of films, and even then, I’m in for it. Remember Alien and its sequel, Aliens? Because… Underwater is basically this, just… under… water.

Underwater is what happens when the same story sinks right to the bottom of its own idea and never recovers. Station in danger, check. Outside menaces, check. Cast of disposables starting with the black
guy, of course – necessary: we all know the black guy has to get it first and must never survive past go. Kristen Stewart in her underwear, eh—if it can sell, bring it. The Bill Paxton funny guy that you secretly hate, check.

Speaking of the Funny Guy trope, let me make a detour. TJ Miller, who rose to fame as the non-stop talker with a camera in 2008’s Cloverfield, is in this. After seeing him basically play the same “comedic” shtick over and over again, it begs the question: can TJ Miller actually act? I’m going to say that the answer, simply put, is no. He is an irritating distraction the entire film, and if all a character’s demise can do is inspire you to go to the concession stand and order a round of popcorn… then that basically sums up my reaction to Miller.

Let’s face it. Underwater is… well past bad – in fact, so bad it just ate at my skin like a sudden onset of super-aggressive eczema. Its only good set piece is the very beginning with Kristen Stewart brushing her teeth and fondling a daddy long legs. After that the movie implodes (pun not intended). You can’t see a fucking thing throughout the entire mess even when scenes are dimly lit (which are few and far between), so good luck trying to know what on Earth is going on. Characters have no time to interact. It’s one calamity after another and people trying to find some kind of plausible safety, and then, those humanoid creatures which basically are just socks and arms and on one occasion, a large penis. It all leads to a Lovecraftian-adjacent finale that adds nothing to the plot and leaves you wondering if maybe you were better off doing your taxes at home.

Mackenzie Davis and Finn Wolfhard in The Turning.

What do you do when you present a horror movie that tries its best during the first few minutes to be something a little above average and then falls flat on its face? I just came out of hating Underwater, and now I have the chore of having to write another paragraph or two about another January release. This time, it’s Floria Sigismondi’s The Turning, a movie that per its title should tell its audience that it is a remake, or visual transition of the Henry James’ novella The Turning of the Screw, itself made into a chilling adaptation by Jack Clayton in 1961 called The Innocents with Deborah Kerr in the lead. That movie is worth seeing and it pops up rather frequently on TCM, or FXM, so if you have a chance, go see it.

[And for anyone seeking quality cinema in these dog days where nothing clicks and you have to wait until March to see the first of the Sundance releases (and hope they are worth it), check Clayton’s extremely brief but important cinematic filmography, which began with the Oscar Winner for Best Actress Room At the Top (with Simone Signoret), The Pumpkin Eater (with Anne Bancroft, also Oscar-nominated), Something Wicked this Way Comes, The Great Gatsby, and his last film, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne with Maggie Smith In one of the better performances of 1987, totally overlooked by the Academy that year. ]

Back to The Turning. And before I start proper, a word to young nannies everywhere: if your job description includes a giant house, creepy kids, and a housekeeper that has a penchant for outdated hair and frosty demeanor, just go elsewhere. Get a certification in coding or a degree in something you can definitely use for your future. Heck, wait tables if it’s really that bad. It really isn’t worth your time to wander into a home that is so pregnant with mood and things that go bump! in the night that you feel like you are physically walking eyes wide open, into a horror story in which you will guaranteed see something weird, or perhaps, not survive. I of course am going for the bigger picture here–how many times are we going to see a young blond thing put herself into a situation where she is all but losing her fucking mind just because there is a paycheck attached to it and the rest is ‘occupational hazard?’

Sadly, the studio system keeps churning these things up, and I’m not going to even describe or get into detail of what takes place because while it somewhat sticks to the novella… it’s pretty much dead on arrival. Nothing works here, even scenes meant to scare come with a sense of ham-fisted insincerity, and all Mackenzie Davis, excellent in Terminator: Dark Fate and Blade Runner 2049 can do is overact and play damsel in distress and telegraph to us that perhaps she herself, like Eleanor Vance and many other horror movie protagonists, has some ghosts of her own. While that element would definitely make for an interesting development, it never does more than announce itself and then… the movie ends?

That is when yours truly did a serious, “What the fuck?” and just sat there, gaping, wondering… where did the movie go? Is-is there perhaps something I missed? Nope. Credits, end, we know nothing more. A total, colossal waste of time and money. Highway robbery masquerading as cinema.

Ah, hell.

Look, just don’t. The movie won’t last into the first week of February and by then we will have another onslaught of garbage thanks to the multiplex mentality and the dumbing down of cinema. Really: rent or watch The Innocents for a better take on the novella. Or read the book — it is decidedly complex and a great read.

ALTERNATIVES:

Opening January 24 is Bertrand Bonello’s intriguing zombie horror – coming of age psychodrama Zombi Child, which premiered last year at the New York Film Festival. You can find the review here.

Also opening on January 29 are two more New York Film Festival standouts — Kantemir Balagov’s searing drama Beanpole, Russia’s entry into the the 92 Academy Award for Best International Picture, and The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio’s ultra-violent, powerful drama that tells about the fall of the Costa Nostra. You can find the reviews for these two films here.