Tag Archives: horror

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: 8/10 

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

White God (2015 Sundance)

10 Feb

It’s a dog-eat-dog world.

Set in inner-city Budapest, White God tells the story of Lili (Zsofia Psotta) trying to reunite with her lovable dog Hagen after he is cruelly abandoned and left for the local pound. It’s a familiar set up that has been done a zillion times before, but never quite like this.  You get bits of a coming-of-age story, family drama, black comedy, and even apocalyptic horror mixed in. On paper, this film would spell disaster, but somehow it all works and adds up to an emotionally draining but immensely satisfying experience.

The film opens with a surreal sequence featuring Lili pedaling downtown being chased by hundreds of stray dogs. Avoiding any hint of CGI and instead relying on real animals, director Kornel Mundruczo shot on set with literally hundreds dogs and the result is absolutely incredible. I can only imagine what sort of logistical nightmare the film set must have been, and it’s a cinematic miracle that any usable footage was collected at all. By expertly blending various tonal shifts, Mundruczo commands the action in every continuing scene. Though the film swaps perspectives after the first act, we get an incredible sense of Lili’s and Hagen’s emotional states through the clever camerawork and production design. Weather alongside Lili at a club or following Hagen into an abandoned construction site, the audience is completely captivated.

Later on, the film gets a bit lengthy and White God would be better served with a quick edit. Patience pays off however during the film’s last act, where Hagen returns to the action as a blood-thirsty killer seeking vengeance. It’s here where the film really picks things up, and the audience is treated with a greatly entertaining and horrific finish.

Bottom Line: While it’s certainly not for everyone (kids and animal lovers might be best suited elsewhere) White God is an incredibly engaging viewing experience with the best canine cast to ever be featured in cinema.

Rating 7/10 

Similar to: The Birds (1963), Let The Right One In (2008), The Kid With A Bike (2011) 

Under The Skin (2014)

27 Apr

Under The Skin is the new thriller/sci-fi/horror from Jonathan Glazer, a director known mostly for his work in music videos though he did direct the feature films Sexy Beast and Birth. Voluptuous leading lady Scarlett Johanson stars in this trippy, abstract, and provocative story about a space creature who roams the Scottish countryside preying upon innocent male victims.

The film starts out with a very impressive montage of bizarre imagery set to a screeching musical piece as Scarlett’s character soon makes her entrance unto the earth, and into the lives of those unfortunate enough to cross her path.  The rest of the movie is a slow-burning and often dark examination into the nature of love, loneliness, sexuality and the value of connectedness.  While some sequences Glazer directs with a pin-point meticulousness, others seem entirely spontaneous and impulsive resulting in a film rich with a variety of atmospheric tones.  Boasting a wonderful score from Mica Levi, and featuring some of the best visuals of the year, Under The Skin makes for a sublime and rewarding cinematic experience.

My biggest issue with the film is that it puts too much style over substance, and unfortunately borders on the fine line between being artful and being pretentious. A forty-second shot of a mountain – though gorgeously shot – is still just a forty-second shot of a mountain, and adds little to the film’s rhythm or narrative. If you are looking for an artsy and experimental take on the genre, Under The Skin is bound to satisfy, while those looking for something a bit less cryptic are best left to check out Scarlett in Captain America 2. I was completely spellbound.

Rating: 9/10 

Similar to: Enemy (2014), The Master (2012), Upstream Color (2013)