Tag Archives: horror

SUSPIRIA (2018)

5 Nov

Luca Guadagnino’s evocative, buzzed about remake of Dario Argento’s supernatural horror Suspiria is finally here in all its bloody glory. Starring Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth and Chloe Grace Moretz, 2018’s version – though almost more of a sequel of sorts than a direct remake – is very much a work that stands on its own; it’s something that strives to challenge both new audiences and diehard fans of the cult classic. Set in 1977, (the year the original Suspiria was released in Europe) the film opens on a rainy day in Berlin where Patricia (Grace-Moretz) stumbles into the home of her psychiatrist, Dr Josef Klemperer (one of Tilda Swinton’s many roles here). After some incoherent ramblings about witchcraft and her dance instructors (it’s fitting that one of the film’s first audible lines is “they took my eyes and now they watch me everywhere”) Dr Klemperer decides his patient is delusional. Cut to the mennonite home of our protagonist Susie (Dakota Johnson) who, over a series of title cards, is flown to Berlin to audition for a prestigious dance school. She gets the role, but not after catching the attention of the school’s leadership who have a sinister pact with an ominous supernatural being known only as Mother.

The first act of Suspiria plays out like some frantic fever dream; Guadagnino creates a rich and impressively detailed atmosphere from the opening and employees jump cuts and sound design choices that become more unnerving and disorientating as the film progresses. It’s a lot to soak in at first and we never get the chance to really connect with any of the characters or their entwining subplots. Nor do we need to. The camerawork in conjunction with the editing does most of the heavy lifting here, utilizing the its own cinematic language to establish an overwhelming sense of unease. Suspiria is a powerfully paradoxical work that manages to be playfully surreal and imaginative while simultaneously still grounded in its expression of visceral human emotion. Scored by the dizzying compositions of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, the aesthetic setup of Suspiria plays out like a love letter to the European psychodramas of the 60’s and 70’s that Guadagnino assumedly grew up on; almost a sort of romantic tribute to the kind of films that – in the age of the big budget Disney franchise – we just don’t see room for in American megaplexes.

Romantic notions soon give way to horrific displays of violence in Suspiria; it should be seen as more of an occult book of spells than any kind of possible love letter. Guadagnino, in contrast to Argento’s abundant use of vibrant blood, plays down the impact of color in the film’s lavish setpieces, but he does not skip out on the level of unease, anxiety and uncomfortableness from the original. I became physically ill during parts of Suspiria – the breathtaking art direction provides a clarity to details and even simple acts like the closing of a curtain feel weighted and ominous. Certain scenes doubledown on the grotesque factor as an outright assault to the audience’s senses – I haven’t seen something so provocatively disturbing since a particular scene from Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (you know the one I’m talking about). However, Guadagnino is less inclined to play things for shock value more than he is interested in the juxtaposition between the obscene and the beautiful. Suspiria constantly maneuvers this exploratory space into a variety of unexpected places, right up to its cataclysmic and frenzied nightmare of a climax. Guaranteed to be divisive among audience interpretations, Suspiria is the kind of work that implants itself deep in your brain and begs you to make some sense of it. If that’s not the definition of engaging cinema then I don’t know what it is.

A sophisticated, enchanting, and disturbing take on the beloved cult classic, Suspiria creates and then deconstructs its own artful and hallucinogenic universe resulting in a profound viewer experience that pushes the limits of conventional genre cinema.

Rating: 9.1

Film Recipe: Black Swan + Eyes Wide Shut + Possession (1981) + Twin Peaks: The Return

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Hereditary (2018)

9 Jun

Judging from the title alone, you wouldn’t think a movie called Hereditary would be the kind of thing to keep you wide awake at night thinking demons have run amok in your house. Though it was appropriately placed in the Midnight section for its premier at this year’s Sundance, the description in the film guide made it seem like a dysfunctional family indie drama in the same vein as something like The Squid and the Whale. That is not the case. Make no mistake, this film fits squarely in the horror realm – and just might be the most eerily effective one to come along in decades.

Hereditary‘s premise is simple enough: after the untimely death of her mother, Annie (Toni Collette) tries to mend the emotional gaps with her strained and distant family. Her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) though loving, is unsupportive and detached while her adolescent son Peter (Alex Wolff) tries to spend every waking moment partying with his friends and away from the family. Strangely, Annie gets closest with her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) after the funeral, though she soon learns that Charlie may have inherited a few ghastly traits from her late grandmother. Annie’s journey in discovering her family history leads her to cross paths with a spiritualist (Ann Dowd) and a few other-worldly beings.

With a runtime of over 2 hours, Hereditary feels a bit weighty from the get go and takes its time getting to the spooks. Patience is rewarded big time during a shocking mid-point twist and things really get cranked up a notch during an emotionally brutal third act. There are moments of almost-unbearable tension in Hereditary; director Ari Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski should get all the credit for their amazing work at commanding attention to various parts of the frame in the heat of the moment – even when it’s deeply troubling. Aster is particularly great at creating atmosphere and subverting audience expectations, even those who are well versed in the genre. It’s clear that the first-time director is familiar with great psychological storytellers like Kubrick, Hitchcock, and Polanski; comparisons to The Shining are not that far off.

Unfortunately, the highs of the film are diluted by it’s lengthy runtime that fails to justify itself. There are too many stretched out periods of little substance in the film that drain the terrifying power from it’s better moments (of which there are more than one) so that the real terror fails to be sustained from scene-to-scene. Trim off 10 or 15 minutes and you would have a bona fide horror masterpiece – instead we have some incredibly great scenes sandwiched by lots of filler.

Still, the peaks of Hereditary are just so damn high – usually without resorting to the cheap jump scares audiences have become accustomed to. The performances are all on-point and bring a sense of realism which grounds the superstitious subject matter of spirits and demons. Newcomer Milly Shapiro, in particular, is absolutely fantastic as Charlie and steals every scene she is in. This is a bold piece of cinema, one that boils with intensity and lingers in the subconscious long after the credits roll.

Bottom Line: Although the lengthy runtime tragically dampens the impact of its spookier scenes, Hereditary displays a chilling cinematic intensity and contains some of the boldest and (most importantly) scariest moments in contemporary horror.

Rating: 7.5/10

Film recipe: The Shining + Bug + Paranormal Activity 

It Comes At Night (2017)

9 Jun

Hot off the heels from his directorial debut Krisha, Trey Edward Shults again uses the camera as his psychological tool to pry open and dismantle the collective psyche of a family in chaos, this time with a horror-centric approach.

It Comes At Night is a psychological thriller set somewhere in a remote post-apocalyptic North America. A fatal disease has spread so fast that the core pillars of society have collapsed, triggering Paul (Joel Edgerton) to place his family on lockdown in a secluded cabin some 50 miles or so away from the nearest city center. It’s here they learn to be self-reliant, living day by day completely off the grid and away from any other survivors. Soon, Paul crosses paths with Will (Chris Abbott), another survivor who might be willing to trade some of his food in exchange for a truck-ride back to his family.  Paranoia abounds.

If it wasn’t already clear from the title, it becomes obvious from the first few minutes of the opening scene that things are going to get dark (both figuratively and literally).  Shults has a real talent for avoiding first act exposition and slowly revealing details about this world bit by bit.  Instead, the director focuses his energy creating tension out of the smallest moments with help from the cinematographer Drew Daniels;  a lingering slow zoom through an empty hallway becomes absolutely horrifying in the hands of these two. The entirety of the film takes place either inside Paul’s cabin or the woods directly adjacent to it, creating a claustrophobic quality that increases in tension along with the rising emotional status of our characters. It Comes At Night isn’t a film that is concerned with what anyone does or says so much as it is with what is going on in the mental spaces between the characters.  This type of film would not work if it wasn’t for the acting strength of everyone involved, and fortunately the supporting cast of Riley Keough, Carmen Ejogo, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. create a palatable unease within their performances.  It’s remarkable how much genuine suspense can be milked from It Comes At Night’s slim narrative; the spooks are few and far between, but the emotional payoffs this film brings to the table are the powerful kind that stick in your gut after the credits roll.

Bottom Line: Confident direction and a refusal for all things explained make It Comes At Night an essential and thrilling piece of psychologically provocative cinema. 

Rating: 7.5/10 

Film recipe:  Prisoners + Children of Men + The Road

The Neon Demon (2016)

24 Jul

In the world of modern auteurs, few have made a name for themselves quite like Nicolas Winding Refn. Aesthetically engaging at his best and pretentiously dull at his worse, he is man whose distinctive flavor of violence and storytelling has its fair share of both fans and detractors. His latest work, The Neon Demon fits nicely enough into his filmography but still offers up something new.

The film follows Jesse (Elle fanning), a 17-year-old who is looking to break into LA’s infamous fashion industry. She arrives, innocent and puppy-eyed, though not without ambition or a constant drive to be successful. Completely naive, she is obviously out of her element and desperate for some chance to show her seemingly natural capacity for modeling. She soon crosses paths with Ruby (Jenna Malone), a makeup artist who becomes sexually infatuated with Jesse and who also acts as a mentor of sorts. It’s through Ruby that Jesse finds her entry into the ultra-competitive industry, and the two form a bond with each other in order to survive the ruthless and narcissistic competition who become dangerously involved with Jesse’s quick rise to fame.

There is no doubt about it – The Neon Demon is a thing of beauty. The film perfectly captures the cattiness and falsity of the industry and more importantly – those who make a living selling their image. Featuring bold cinematography, Refn’s DP Natasha Braier (The Rover) creates a daring world of stark color and shadow through her lens. The result is a colorful candy store on overdrive. In almost every frame, Braier extracts and magnifies notions of plastic-ness and vanity from the industry’s glitzy and glamorous reputation. Refn just doesn’t just simply exploit this idea of a sexy falseness towards to fashion – he revels in it to an extreme, self-indulgent degree.

Never a fan of subtlety, things get pretty extreme in Refn’s surreal and dark universe (especially during the film’s bizarre WTF-did-I-just-see final act) but it takes its time getting there and viewers with little patience will be turned off within the first 20 minutes. Still, the film is stylistically unique enough to be redeeming, and the way Neon Demon’s visuals are used to tell the narrative becomes intensely mesmerizing over time.

There is a lot of underlying ideas Refn is trying to say here, but there is even more Refn wants you to think he trying to say; most attempts at any underlying themes often turn up empty handed. Like Refn’s view of the industry itself, there is little meaning to be found beneath the film’s polished external shell. But yet, Neon Demon is perplexingly impossible to look away from.

Bottom Line: It might be an excessive work of placing style over substance, but with a little patience the self-indulgent Neon Demon can also become a deeply hypnotic and tantalizingly fun experience.

 

Rating: 7/10

Film Recipe: Only God Forgives + Black Swan + Upstream Color + lots of synths

 

 

Spring (2015)

12 Nov

Life is not good for Evan. He is wanted by the law, unemployed, and on the run from a pair of criminals who want a violent payback from a bar fight. His mother, the only family he had, has recently passed from cancer, and his best (and only) friend is in a useless state of constant intoxication.

Left with little options, Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) decides to run from his problems by taking a one-way flight to Italy, giving him a chance to catch a much-needed break and think about the oncoming phase of his life. It’s while working on a farm in Italy that Evan soon falls for a mysterious unnamed local girl (Nadia Hilker) and the two form an intimate and off kilter relationship.

This is the set up for Spring, an unconventional but thoroughly engaging European love story. Filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead (who collaborated before on the 2012 thriller Resolution and a segment for V/H/S Viral) share directorial duties on the film with Benson writing the provocative screenplay.

It’s instantly obvious that Pucci and Hilker share an impressionable chemistry, and the rich but naturalistic dialogue between the two characters gives life to the film. These characters feel real and fleshed out, unlike many of the two-dimensional leads that populate the genre. Benson’s script boldly explores many different areas of Evan’s story, jumping between idealistic romance, nostalgia, philosophy, suspense, and at times, Cronenberg-esc body horror.  This kind of awkward genre-blending usually results in something cringe-worthy (see Pucci’s 2005 suburban drama/Donnie Darko-ripoff The Chumscrubber), but fortunately, Moorehead and Benson’s film works so well as a whole it’s futile to focus on its many disjointed parts.

Some impressive visual effects work and beautiful cinematography by Moorehead gives Spring a haunting visceral impression and the synth-laden score by The Album Leaf is near-perfect. Though many will inevitably be put of by the more pretentious aspects of its philosophical and biological twists, it’s hard not to be immersed in the story Moorehead and Benson have created.

Bottom Line: Led by a pair of outstanding performances, an impressive script, and an aesthetically vibrant atmosphere, Spring is this year’s must-see romance story.

Rating: 8/10 

Film Recipe: Before Sunrise + Charlie Countryman + I Origins  

The Nightmare (2015 Documentary)

30 Oct

The most universal aspect of horror is its power to make us realize that evil might be a lot closer – and a lot more unpredictable – than we want to acknowledge.

Few films have tapped into that mysterious and terrorizing aspect of the great unknown. Alfred Hitchcock managed to do it with the masterful Psycho. In the 70’s, William Friedkin and Tobe Hooper did it with The Exorcist and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In the late 90’s a group of students were able to tap into that primal fear on a fraction of the budget with The Blair Witch ProjectAnd now in 2015, director Rodney Ascher (The ABC’s of Death, Room 237) taps into that same terrorizing instinct (this time in documentary format) with The Nightmare. 

The documentary consists of eight interviews with people who suffer from a bizarre condition known as sleep paralysis. This night time phenomenon literally forces its victims to be lucid and awake while experiencing an unconscious nightmare – without the ability to speak or move a muscle.  Personal accounts have described a sort of demonic figure or unwelcome intruder entering the room and peering over the side of the bed, conveying thoughts and feelings of death, hell, and pain. It’s literally the stuff of nightmares, and so far modern science has shown no lasting treatment or cure.

Through a combination of Q&A sessions, dramatic recreations, surreal computer imagery and voiceover narration, Ascher creates a mesmerizing, want-to-close-your-eyes-but-can’t look into this rare but troubling phenomenon. Somehow The Nightmare summons that banal and instinctive fear of the unknown better than any other film this year – if not this decade – providing a conduit for audiences to conjure up their own demons and proving that the scariest things in life are indeed those things we create out of our own head.

As in the Stanley Kubrick tribute/conspiracy film Room 237, Ascher is most interested in hearing what other people have to say, and the personal retellings of sleep paralysis from those who have suffered through it make up the backbone for the film. Without much of a story or dramatic arc to follow, The Nightmare often ends up repeating itself more than once, though it avoids anything close to boredom by adding a new and visceral layer of terror with each person’s story. The Nightmare might seem repetitive on the surface, but always terrifying nevertheless while in the moment (and the film does an excellent job of making sure those moments of terror make a lasting impression on its audience).

Once you’re under it’s spell, The Nightmare becomes absolutely enchanting, horrifying, and captivating in equal measure. With superb attention to rhythm, the editing cuts in and out between recreations and talking heads relating first hand experiences. Ascher avoids most of the medical and scientific explanations behind sleep paralysis, instead focusing on each person’s accounts of terror. The end result is a numbing but deeply personal shock to the system, which gains tremendous authenticity due to the fact that we are watching a documentary and not a work of fiction. Though having a more solid narrative trajectory would have been welcome, The Nightmare adequately describes the horror of being paralyzed during your most fearful moment, doubting whether or not you will ever make it back to real life again.

Bottom Line: By digging straight through the psyche and exploiting each fearful moment to the limit, The Nightmare is an authentically terrorizing, hypnotic documentary – one that’s best experienced rather than watched. 

Rating: 9/10 

Film Recipe: Room 237 + Nightmare on Elm Street + a bad acid trip 

The Visit (2015)

16 Sep

WTF Mr. Shyamalan?

What was hyped up to be the Oscar-nominated director’s return to horror fame was nothing short of a complete clusterfuck. From start to finish, The Visit is a complete cinematic trainwreck delivered in the form of one of the most tired of all horror cliches: found footage. 

Self-financed by Shyamalan himself after having his movies “robbed of artistic integrity” by previous studio heads, the film was shot on a cheap 5 million and distributed by niche horror outlet Blumhouse (Paranormal Activity, Sinister, The Purge). The story follows two chilren Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) as they take a trip to visit their estranged grandparents whom they have never actually met. Of course things get messy when the grandparents start acting up, and it’s up to the kids to find out why. Becca, a bright young filmmaker, is making a documentary out of the whole ordeal as a means to connect her mother with her family and what we see is supposedly the edited footage leftover on her laptop. It’s a cute idea, made even more adorable when young filmmaker Becca is seen onscreen scolding her brother on the merits of mis en scene and narrative tension (almost as if Shyamalan himself is outright reassuring critics and audiences he knows how to make a film). Unfortunately, the “film within a film” concept falls apart fast.

Almost everything in The Visit reeks of desperation. Shyamalan, instead of carefully creating tension and suspense through narrative like he used to, spends too much time switching between cheap jump scares and potty humor as simple provoking devices. These jarring shifts seem to happen at regular and predictable intervals, making for a long and uncomfortable viewing experience. It would work as a sort of campy absurdist piece (think Neil La Bute’s misunderstood The Wicker Man) if Shyamalan wasn’t trying so hard to be sincere.  Long monologues about the value of family and forgiveness feel so thinly veiled and counterfeit, even when being delivered by an actress like Kathryn Hahn.

And yet, perplexingly, watching The Visit was actually somewhat enjoyable – in parts. About halfway through the film, there was this fleeting hope that maybe, just maybe, M. Night was embracing his own inner goofiness and making an intentionally bad comedy. But that feeling only lasted a minute or two before the film dives headfirst into tiring cliches and I was bored again. One of the best moments comes later on when Tyler tries convincing Becca to leave her camera out overnight to capture some of the strangeness that goes on after dark. “I can’t do that for my documentary!” She exclaims, “Where is your sense of cinematic standards?”

In what is easily the most truthful moment in the film, Tyler the replies:  “No one cares about cinematic standards! There is something crazy going on here!”

Bottom Line: Too sappy to be scary and too cringey to be a comedy, The Visit is nothing more than a cheap and desperate attempt to reclaim a director’s former artistic klout. And yet somehow it’s all bizarrely enjoyable. 

Is anyone really having fun here?

Rating: 3/10 

Film Recipe:  Absurdist WTF-ness of The Wicker Man + a kiddie-approved, sanitized version of  V/H/S