The 2019 Popcorn Frights Short Films Line-Up

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It’s that time again.

The 5th Annual Popcorn Frights Film Festival is happening once again in their relatively new home in Ft. Lauderdale’s dope church-turned-single screen movie theater Savor Cinema and once again the good folks running it – Igor, Marc, and company – have asked me to review the short film line-up of this year’s run. Which is very considerate of them knowing that I think of the short film as the ultimate artform because I can finish it before bedtime.

Except that this year has an intimidating amount of 40 short films to be screened throughout the festival in several different programs and bedtime becomes a moot point, even after we ignore the fact that I have to sleep under the sheets after watching a good horror movie. Nothing I’m particularly hostile to this year and a couple that I’m really impressed by.

Whelp, a lot of movies ahead, let’s get cracking at them.

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Wild Love

OTHER SIDE OF THE BOX (Caleb J. Phillips, USA)
Screens with Haunt on Thursday 8 August at 9:15 pm

An excellent exercise in patience, using its 15 minutes well to build its tension and its cuts to make a point of what might be happening right outside of the frame and the eyeview of our lead characters as they try to find out why they’ve been sent a certain sinister box. Pretty underlit to the point that somehow the very void that we find in the box looks brighter than the room around it and but the final moments are so perfectly creepy that I can’t bring myself to mind. A perfectly functional opening for the festival!

WILD LOVE (Paul Autric/Quentin Camus/Léa Georges/Maryka Laudet/Zoé Sottiaux/Corentin Yvergniaux, France)
Screens with Bloodline on Friday 9 August at 7:00 pm

Certainly the familiar story and its status as a work for L’École des Nouvelle Images points to this being an animation exercise reel than anything else, but it is a marvelous exercise of distinguishing the textures in a forest trip whether it’s the hair on a man’s exposed legs or the fur on an army of beavers (the one moment that felt off to me is a flamethrower that looked like it was in a different space from any character in the shot). A lot of playing with depth in a foggy and suspicious area and soft lighting in a cave where the only source is a slit on the top, just in general enough of a technical showcase to allow me to see how it might have the budget it has but still make the most of it and promise a lot of its directors (SIX of them, so you KNOW a lot of work was put in this) with further resources. And, admittedly, even the story was amusing in its familiarity, what with the bug-eyed expressions of the little rodents…

THE DESECRATED (John Gray, USA)
Screens with The Dare on Friday 9 August at 9:00 pm

I admittedly did not have much of a response to this, perhaps given that much of the waiting tension of its 7 minutes doesn’t have much payoff beyond a final note that’s too blink-and-you’ll-miss-it to function as the jump scare it seems to want to pay off for. It’s a bit concerning that the middle sequence with the… ghost (?) is more effective than the final scare. Still, I will give props to how color was used make a mortuary gloomy without underlighting it.

LOOM (Kevin Rothlisburger, USA)
Screens with Bliss on Friday 9 August at 11:15 pm

Very close to being my favorite short in the festival in its nicely self-contained EC Comics delivery of overt monster horror, outrageous blood splatter, and particularly in its gorgeously autumnal outdoor color work (even if it doesn’t differentiate that much between the opening dusk and the closing dawn). It’s particularly a satisfying slasher-type gambit to have all of its victims of violent death to be such despicable bullying good ol’ boy cartoons that we won’t miss. There’s one hiccup for me and it is not a small one: some big points of the climax have some very messy post-production work. Specifically, a shot that reveals one of the characters’ true nature features some attempted pinlight work that doesn’t convincingly align with their eyes (this is most frustrating because the face already looks nicely Halloweenish in a way that I think the short owns) and certain shots of an extended chase sequence end up looking like there’s a blurry blue Rorschach blot on the screen in a combination with the lighting, the coloring, and the generous usage of fog in the forest. And it’s very bothersome stuff but the rest of the short is able to carry itself all through the night that by the end of the bloodbath, I end up pretty satisfied with it as diverting campfire story.

GUESSING GAME (Zach Wincik, USA)
Screens with Alive on Saturday 10 August at 1:00 pm

I understand that the close-up is the easiest way to establish tension with the specificity of your actors’ expression filling up the frame (which Guessing Game does very well) but even for a short film, there is a limit to how long you can repeat one shot scale before it deflates and I’m not sure Guessing Game avoids it. Alongside that, there’s also how off-puttingly humorless the final beats of the short feel with a last shot being one that insists this short is trying to say something about society but can’t when all of the context of what happening is back-loaded. I might have forgiven a good amount of it if it had played meta with its end credits while removing the widen that sees us out.

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A Doll for Edgar

A DOLL FOR EDGAR (Anthony Dones, USA)
Screens as part of the Homegrown program on Saturday 10 August at 3:00 pm

Reminiscent to me of the “Living Doll” episode from The Twilight Zone, it even has an antagonist that feels maybe more modern than Savalas and certainly more sinister with his late evil revealing monologue but definitely reminds me of the actor in his brawny baldness. We have here once again a nicely self-contained sort of EC Comics tale where we watch supernatural circumstances give a satisfying comeuppance to evil bullys (credit to Justin Sims for giving an odiously masculine attitude against Bryce Smith’s sensitivities), aided by some pretty great shadow work on the characters to give this broken home a domestic gloominess.

ALWAYS LISTENING (Randy Gonzalez, USA)
Screens as part of the Homegrown program on Saturday 10 August at 3:00 pm

I get what it’s going for in trying to fully envelope the sort of paranoia one would expect in a society reliant on obsessively surveillant technology (not that I find that idea inherently interesting, but it delivers this theme in a pretty effective way). I just also happen to think the ending beat is a bridge too far for a short film that was already doing a pretty fine job as it was. It feels like the sort of moment inserted in because the makers thought the short couldn’t qualify as horror without violence and it suddenly tries to introduce a new logic to the story that feels totally divorced with what we just watched. But it does have a cool effect when it gets to that point (and also a very well-used sound effect for what happens off-screen).

CALL FOR A GOOD TIME (Mike Marrero & Jon Rhoads, USA)
Screens as part of the Homegrown program on Saturday 10 August at 3:00 pm

Full Disclosure: I am friends with one of the directors for this film, Jon Rhoads. And from what I understand Marrero & Rhoads had made this more as an off-hand doodle while working on a much bigger project, so it explains the crude construction of this whole thing (even though I think the granite brown color of the short – however cut off it is by the brighter floor of the bathroom – does make the bathroom feel grosser than it actually looks). I could certainly expect better and more inspired from the makers of Buzzcut (one of the highlights of a previous Popcorn Frights and in fact the short that introduced be to Rhoads) than something not that much different from Lights Out, but for a throwaway bit meant to function as an amuse bouche to the rest of the festival, it works.

FEVER (Brian Karl Rosenthal, USA)
Screens as part of the Homegrown program on Saturday 10 August at 3:00 pm

The perfect mixture between darkness and costume. It’s very hard not to spoil when and how it pays off after watching an extremely sweaty Lani Lum wait in shadowy silence and scope around the corners but even after that payoff happens, we get to spend a couple more minutes watching out for when the source of all this short’s scares return again (credit especially to Chuck Baxter’s slender presence). Being able to pull off that surprise twice in a row with enough space in between is pretty impressive if nothing else about this short will linger in my memory.

THE FINAL GIRL RETURNS (Alexandria Perez, USA)
Screens as part of the Homegrown program on Saturday 10 August at 3:00 pm

Full Disclosure for this one as well: I am also good friends with the writer/director/producer, Alex. Which I suppose puts me in a good position to already understand exactly what she was aiming for with The Final Girl Returns, which portrays what happens AFTER a slasher movie ends. And I feel like the answer Alex has for that question is too big for a 15 minute short, but I think she does as best a job as I can see involving the frustrations and the psychological scars (impressively established with schism-like cuts into the faces the Driver remembers – his lack of name being one of several ways this aesthetically feels like a Nicholas Winding Refn short) beyond some moments that are a bit too on the nose like the lines about “changing the ending” and a radio newscaster literally asking “when will the cycle end?”. Still in any case, this has some brilliant horizon-set camerawork in the California desert with washed-out colors by Rob Bennett (on top of a really impressive combination of handheld and dolly zoom in a single shot) and the sinister Cliff Martinez-like soundscape to make it all feel an aberration of the slasher form. If I think the runtime is too restricted to make much comment so much as observation of the genre, its themes are still direct in its feminist reclaiming of the genre (not least of which being that we don’t actually see the violence commit towards the women). And needless to say, I’m really proud of Alex.

THE LIMITS (Ulbrecht Tomas, USA)
Screens as part of the Homegrown program on Saturday 10 August at 3:00 pm

The biggest surprise of all of the shorts for me. A dystopian future road to hell where its lead follows an inky black path of night that’s only illuminated by the torches, but it’s specifically the artificial but eye-catching night sky effects that made it a treat to watch, foreseeing the sort of cosmic element it tries to introduce in moments like the hooded robe cult and the giant truck driving madman straight out of a John Carpenter science fiction. Not to mention the great effect that interrupts every major kill, where after a geyser of blood effects, we smash cut to a hard close up of what looks like blood clotting with a crackling sound beneath it. It makes death look and sound painful on top of letting it function as spectacle. As it moves forward, it becomes less exciting to look at, especially the day scenes where the gun muzzle effects look much more chintzy and betray its budget, but overall it disabused me of any previous hesitation I had watching a 22 minute short by making a pretty straightforward dark quest picture.

SPIRIT #1 (Brett Potter, USA)
Screens as part of the Homegrown program on Saturday 10 August at 3:00 pm

Produced by Miami’s local film collective pride, Borscht Corporation, it should be expected that Spirit #1 is would be off-kilter and weird. That approach by Borscht is hit-or-miss with me and I’m disappointed to call it a miss here (the first half was losing me after a nice gambit of breaking the fourth wall with text and camera movement), but it does backload its best and wildest stuff including an impressive extreme tighten from the widest and narrowest possible hallway shot one could start from. But sometimes being weird just isn’t enough for me.

VALERIO’S DAY OUT (Michael Arcos, USA)
Screens as part of the Homegrown program on Saturday 10 August at 3:00 pm

I honestly started off very off-put by the fractured video diary manner of this short (I don’t think I ever ended up warming to the usage of title cards, frankly) but as it continued forward, Arcos’ work started coalescing into something really sinister and unnervingly inhuman. The monotonous reading of the titular jaguar’s thoughts went from gratingly annoying to serial killer-like cold while ascribing venomous emotions towards actions that would seem natural to such an animal. The repeated usage of news footage went from halting to tell us information we already know to hammering the apparent youth and “cuteness” of our young remorseless killer. The pointed address in the thoughts of the jaguar turned from weird to uncomfortable. If any of these shorts might have turned out to use form most effectively to create a chilling tone and mood, I think I may have to hand it to this one

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The Limits

LA NORIA (Carlos Baena, Spain)
Screens with Itsy Bitsy on Saturday 10 August at 5:00 pm

A wonderful and silent dark fairy tale where even if I wasn’t remotely scared of what it brought, I’m still in wonder at the lighting effects Baena and his animators put into it. They’ve really shown a nice versatility between backlighting the monsters the main child has to face and providing a sense of whimsy in the colors once he finds the treasure at the end. I can’t say I’m all that moved emotionally by the final minute like it expects the viewer to be but that lighting really does a lot of the heavy-lifting for the haunting beauty of it all.

THE VIDEO STORE COMMERCIAL (Tim Rutherford/Cody Kennedy, Canada)
Screens with Daniel Isn’t Real on Saturday 10 August at 7:15 pm

I mean, it’s got its kitsch down. Looking like a hole in the wall video store from the 80s, having a lead character that is obnoxious exactly the way a movie fanatic would be, having that static CCTV look to its camera. There’s just not much to it beyond that kitschy nostalgia. At the very least, it has a nice gory face-melting moment and it has jokes. Not particularly jokes that made me laugh beyond a line of exposition delivered exactly in the sort of snobby way somebody who calls themselves a “movie expert” would, but jokes nevertheless and it gets out of the door fast enough to not really feel like a bother to watch.

STARLETS (Marten Carlson, USA)
Screens with Villains on Saturday 10 August at 9:30 pm

The sort of meta humor with the company title card was really charming enough to get me into what Starlets was going for early on and I really enjoyed the black-and-white cinematography melding together into studio system silver that I never felt bored looking at the film. But that interest was fizzling by the end of things – especially any time that Jill Bailey’s Norma Desmond impression wasn’t on-screen – and when it reached its endpoint, everything that happened felt expected.

CHOWBOYS: AN AMERICAN FOLKTALE (Astron-6, Canada)
Screens with Porno on Saturday 10 August at 11:15 pm

I imagine I would be much more into this if this wasn’t my first exposure to horror-comedy troupe Astron-6 proper (I had only previously seen The Void, which was directed by two of its members but not actually considered part of the group’s proper works). Almost all of Chowboys knowingly functions as a last hurrah for the group as it opens with a title card that literally announces “the end of the cowboy”, so I wonder if the rest of their work is as low-key as this one taking place in one location and with no change in blocking between its characters. In any case, it’s still highly amusing as a self-aware campfire story that finds a very slick way of establishing itself as an anthology short (two moments where I actually went “a-ha!”) and an amiable sense of humor for something about three doomed men in a chillingly blue snowstorm ready to die (and I especially love the sound mix of the howling winds in the end credits to hammer its punchline home). I don’t know that I’m rushing to see the rest of Astron-6’s material from this, but it’s definitely something on my radar now.

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The Video Store Commercial

THE OBLITERATION OF THE CHICKENS (Izzy Lee, USA)
Screens with The Unthinkable on Sunday 11 August at 1:00 pm

Pretty damn spot-on impersonation of Werner Herzog tonally and vocally (by Bracken MacLeod) if not aesthetically, as Lee simply uses the narration as a pretense to work with stock footage and associative cutting. Definitely inspired by Herzog’s infamous declaration of his fears of the “stupidity” of chickens, it’s a throwaway short that has a lot of energy in its 3 minutes and doesn’t outstay its welcome before the joke becomes stale. I laughed a lot at the directness of “the abyss is stupid”.

THE SUBJECT (Patrick Bouchard, Canada)
Screens with Artik on Sunday 11 August at 3:00 pm

I can hardly think of a Canadian animated short that didn’t entertain me at the very least and that’s saying nothing of the ones that show me techniques and content I’ve never imagined. This falls into the former – it’s essentially what a student of Jan Švankmajer would get with more naval-gazing as Bouchard portrays a man in stop-motion dissecting a creation in his image – but it’s still a very impressive piece of craft: stressing the cracks and age in a body that feels deliberately more earthy than fleshy before all of the golden and rusted machinery pops out of the cavities to provide a steadier rhythm to the slicing and smashing we’re watching. I don’t have much enthusiasm for artists making art about themselves and I could say I expected more (and not be lying), but this is still eye-popping stuff with a final shot that truly argues the difference between human skin and clay surface while using dissolves to flip those differences on their head.

FROST BITE (Andrew Hunt, USA)
Screens with Infección on Sunday 11 August at 5:15 pm

An unexpectedly charming Zombie western set in the blinding white snows of winter with a crunchy sound design to call attention to the elements surrounding our characters, one of them a laconic young woman (Louisa Darr who is almost as much a source of a lot of that charm as Hunt’s relaxed Western directing vibes) and the other being a zombie in a yellow jacket and hoodie (Rod Kasai, who proves to be exceptionally expressive for the part of a mindless zombie) who is either following her instinctively or being led by her. In any case, the relation between our two subjects has an unexpectedly warm payoff (and a final beat that suggests this may be a proof-of-concept for a later feature to me) and the zombie makeup mixes so well with the frozen snow on the actors’ faces that I found this to be an unexpected highlight among all the other shorts of the festival.

YOUR LAST DAY ON EARTH (Marc Martínez Jordán, Spain)
Screens with Satanic Panic on Sunday 11 August at 9:30 pm

My favorite short film of the festival, period. Takes the sort of things that it makes me an easy mark for movies to explore well – grief and memory, though it’s not as subjective on the latter as I’d like. I expect that would be “fixed” by cutting down on the narration, but I put “fixed” in scare quotes because that assumes that’s what Jordán and his team wanted anyway and in any case the delivery by Enric Anquer is brilliantly sad and funny in its urgency at the same time so I’d rather not lose his voice. It’s particularly the way the short divvied up its responsibility between desperation and absurdity (thanks in addition Jordán’s editing delivering a late heist film interrupted by flashbacks) that makes it so effective and its final beats truly hit home even while using the most obvious of time travel clichés. And credit also to cinematographer Yuse Riera being able to give a consistent softness to the image and landscape where our hero remembers his wife’s casualty in a terrorist attack and returns, the kind of softness that comes from trying to pull an image from the back of your head and gives it a rosy look even while attached to a horrific death. Brilliant stuff.

FEARS (German Sacho, Spain)
Screens in front of Z on Sunday 11 August at 9:30 pm

Not deficient. But it is overly familiar to a degree that I’m starting to have trouble distinguishing any Spanish horror short I see: they all involve the same beats of tension, the same type of little girl, the same shade of darkness, especially the same fear of decrepit old women (with a mean-spirited twist at the end of this one that was also pretty familiar). Anyway, the guy I saw it with joked about how Guillermo Del Toro would probably produce this guy’s feature debut like he always does with any Spanish-language filmmaker with a short like this and… yeah, he definitely would…

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Caterpillarplasty

GO BACK (Matthew & Nathaniel Barber, USA)
Screens with The Girl on the Third Floor on Monday 12 August at 7:30 pm

It’s very simple but also very novel (with a nice cynical bloodsplatter note) and aesthetically well-suited to the Halloween time of year with a coloring scheme that feels drafted out of blues and oranges. I don’t feel like I left with very much substance in it beyond a waiting game for a character to receive his dues after foolishly ignoring the creepy warning signs before him, but sometimes you don’t need much more to be amused by a horror film.

MERCURY SCREAMS (Dan Wilder, USA)
Screens with The Girl on the Third Floor on Monday 12 August at 7:30 pm

At first glimpse, the presentation of the subject matter as archive footage seems like bet-hedging in order to cover for some of the more amateur production elements, but as it turns out it’s all pretense for the video effects that Wilder and his crew play with to stress the wrongness of what we’re watching (on top of a context of background information regarding the material’s “intended broadcast” and what happened to prevent it). A fun little invented video relic of demonic pregnancy that commits to making video relic status work.

CATERPILLARPLASTY (David Barlow-Krelina, Canada)
Screens with Depraved on Monday 12 August at 9:30 pm

Aggressively ugly character designs made even more effective by how the reflective plastic sheen on their bodies projects their inhumanity and then the finale just takes the grotesquerie and tries to present it as the most mindblowingly beautiful thing ever in all of its trippy phallic and yonic imagery. Plus the saxophone soundtrack throws my brain around for a whirl. God, Canadian animation is always so reliable.

WHEN THE LIGHTS GO OUT (Jonas Trukanas, Lithuania)
Screens with Queen of Spades: The Looking Glass on Tuesday 13 August at 7:30 pm

A familiar story once again – one in which we have an example in this very short film slate of a young boy deals with his oppressor by creating a frightening protector –  but one no less well-delivered than the others. Particularly given that the weakness of the monster in the film means that Trukanas works with some dynamic lighting ideas, if nothing eye-opening, to make those shafts of light cutting through the uniform dark blue hues (and red at one point in the short) stand out.

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How to Be Alone

MANNEQUINS (David Malcolm, UK)
Screens with The Sonata on Tuesday 13 August at 9:30 pm

Really fun and interesting already as an experiment (it reminded me of a school assignment I had in film school involving still imagery, except this one had a knack for camera movements making up for the literal rigidity of its actors), but then it had to try to be ABOUT SOMETHING. And the worst part is that I can’t really figure out what it was trying to be about, but the last few moments of the short and the repetition it utilizes are definitely pointed in a way that deflates all the Scooby-Doo fun of what preceded it. On top of which, it has pretty bad lighting. I don’t know if it’s deliberate or not, but it started to hurt eventually.

HOW TO BE ALONE (Kate Trefry, USA)
Screens with Paradise Hills on Wednesday 14 August at 7:30 pm

It is among the best shot of all the shorts with obviously the most resources (what with two recognizable indie stars in Maika Monroe and Joe Keery, the latter extremely underused) but it’s also just really… overwritten in a young adult-ish way considering the anxiety it tries to portray. And more particularly it feels like it uses narration way too desperately as a crutch to tell us things that there are better and more effective ways to tell us. Monroe obviously delivers it well enough verbally, but I don’t need to be explained the snake or the baby or all of that and wish it had just trusted Maika to not have to say anything to let us know what’s wrong in Denmark. And then that final act that has zero surprises after a short that gave us zero doubt where it was going to go, quickly resolving the issue without much struggle.

Also I fucking HATE that they’re as young as they are (the actors are my age) with a place as spacious and luxurious as THAT (complete with a nickelodeon!).

DEEP TISSUE (Meredith Alloway, USA)
Screens with Knives and Skin on 14 August at 9:30 pm

Obviously amateur in its picture quality and its limited blocking possibilities (looks like it was shot in a motel with its two beds in the “house call” location and it cramps it up), but a wonderfully sexy sense of humor (thanks especially to the two performances in the film), a good amount of effective gushy goriness, and I think Meredith Alloway and Joshua Wilmott got a rapport pace going to establish the understandable nervousness of the situation while translating that into something much more sinister than it turns out.

FIVE-COURSE MEAL (James Cadden, Canada)
Screens with In Fabric on Thursday 15 August at 7:30 pm

I definitely picked the best short to eat breakfast while watching. Based on a short story by Josh Saltzman, the punchline of Five-Course Meal is foreseeable after a certain plate slides down the unwelcoming gunmetal floor where Mark (Murray Farnell) and Jenny (Melissa Kwasek) are staying for a “month-long” experiment. But the sloppy slurpy sound design and the gradual filthying up of the sterile room so that it’s covered in gross greens and browns and yellows (as well as each catered dish coming by looking less appealing and more repulsive) do the best job possible of making the journey down an endurance test. And when we get to the point we expected, the prosthetics by Bold Raven FX turn the film into an outright grotesque cartoon, even using how ill-fitting the body of it fits on our actors to emphasis the exaggerated flabbiness of them all. No surprises, but very well put together.

TERROR ROAD (Brian Shephard, USA)
Screens with The Gravedigger on Thursday 15 August at 7:30 pm

Feels kind of tandem as a piece with Go Back with the differences standing out. Here, we have no orange at all leaving the piece with a foggish blue. Here we actually see the monster, looking like a grizzled little creature from Lamberto Bava’s Demons. There’s less space between the beginning of the signs (how funny that both shorts have their titles delivered to us via signs) and the end of the road for our foolish travelers. If anybody else would have to opportunity to see both of these back-to-back, I’d say they function pretty much well as an exercise in seeing how the same story can be told wildly differently and both of them getting the job done well enough.

TOE (Chad Thurman/Neal O’Brien, USA)
Screens with Bit on Friday 16 August at 10:00 pm

An amusingly creepy usage of puppetry (designed by Demi Kay Schlehoffer) to lovingly bring attention to the cracks and dirt on our protagonist boy’s face and the rustic world in which he lives in, adding to the folktale vibe it has going for it. It’s the shadowy depressed black-and-white of the short that really sells the nightmarish tone of this animated work.

In any case, if any readers find their way in Ft. Lauderdale in the upcoming week, I’d hope y’all check out the Popcorn Frights Film Festival and have a great time! Don’t be afraid to scream.

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The Final Girl Returns

It Practically Gallops

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There is obviously a line between contempt for your characters and apathy for your characters and I think writer-director Ari Aster’s debut feature horror film Hereditary has found the thinnest element of that line. It is a movie that is aware of the ugly aspect of what its central family is doing to each other and wants us to be aware too. It is a movie that validates the devastating feelings within these people that is making them react and hurt each other this way, knowing that they are entitled to feel the way they feel and refusing to judge them for it. Only judging them for the toxic manner in which they inflict those feelings on each other. And despite this, it is a movie that does not care what happens to them and knows that the results are of their own devices for the most part.

Hereditary’s happens to be quite a movie that it is easy to spoil by discussing its premise, so I hope it suffices simply to acknowledge that it all begins with a death in the Graham family: Ellen Leigh’s (a character we see in photos that, last I checked, were uncredited) obituary is the first thing that greets us in a chillingly neutral tone. She is survived by her daughter Annie (Toni Collette), Annie’s husband Steven (Gabriel Byrne), their teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and child daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and their responses to her death is complex, to say the least. Annie had a toxically antagonistic relationship with her mother amplified by mental illness issues between Annie’s father and brother while by all accounts Ellen took a special interest towards Charlie.

In any case, having to deal with a death in the family is a tough experience and very soon Hereditary proves that to only be the beginning of their troubles, with an incident that irreparably tears a conflict between a slowly deteriorating Annie and an increasingly vulnerable Peter. And between the two of those are the heightened poles of Hereditary’s miseries: Collette embodies an inability to compartmentalize between her hate, her grief, and her trauma, spitefully lashing out at everyone’s who is even slightly at fault for her losing herself. While Wolff goes through a downward spiral of muting out any of his emotions and letting himself get eaten more and more. Indeed, his big showcase is a moment where he stares at an unseen thing in the backseat of a car and stares out trying to comprehend what just occurred, refusing to frown or scream or anything except let a solitary tear run down his cheek. Meanwhile, Byrne makes a useless character feel even more like a clueless slump (which I wholly mean as a compliment) and Shapiro gives Charlie a melancholy loneliness at losing the family member she most interacted with that plays very well with the other weird ambiance she gives to her presence.

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And they have a lot of time to do it. Hereditary knows full well what happens when you have the worst feelings a person could possibly be experiencing embodied in four different people and left to simmer in four walls for weeks at a time (2 hours in runtime paced incredibly well by Jennifer Lame and Lucian Johnston), mixed around by Charlie Dahan’s deep doomy vibrations of a score. Hereditary IS a horror movie of the supernatural sort (I do not think this is a spoiler though of course explaining how would be), but the real horrifying aspect comes for what this family is putting each other through simply for the fact that they don’t know how to process this or because they don’t feel like they’re allowed to.

The near-invisible delicacy with which Aster condemns the Graham family with only slivers of sympathy despite a loyalty to wide shots of funereal domesticity that give its central drama an empty dollhouse look to it (something Aster wants us to recognize by way of Annie‘s career as a diorama artist and indeed the very first shot after that obituary is a long close-up from an open dollhouse into a 2nd floor bedroom that happens to be Peter’s) and close-ups that accent exactly how ugly it looks for a human being to emotionally collapse. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski uses the wide shots as an opportunity to give the rooms and their inhabitants a subtle wooden brown implying how artificial anything that was holding this home together was while using the close-ups to give shadows (and aided by sweaty makeup) that make the characters look gaunt and their heads facing downwards. Collette is the best aide to this: it feels insulting to call what she’s doing mugging, because there’s so much deeper internalizing than that but she puts on a consistent exhausted frown, escalated in a dinner scene gone wrong where she can’t help ripping Peter apart verbally. She looks like if Shelly Duvall got fucking sick of Jack Nicholson’s shit and decided she didn’t an axe to murder him, just a glare.

It is so effective as chamber-esque thriller and as exercise in ruining the viewer’s day that when Hereditary takes a very-very-late turn to glibness, it is jarring in an unfortunate way (it is not the only time – there is one cutaway shot against a character’s haunting screams that feels a little beyond the pale in cruelty). It also happens to be a moment that utilizes “explain-the-plot” in the worst kind of way, at a point where we are very clear on what has went on unless we weren’t paying attention. That it is the final note in Hereditary does not particularly stain my memory of it, because when you do it right moodiness is going to linger long enough to really mess up any good feelings you could possible grasp.

NB: Good ol’ Dancin’ Daniel Bayer has suggested that you see this movie with an audience and I sure wish I could agree with that if some 305 dickhead didn’t shout “DE PINGA!” at the screen during one of the most silent-inducing moments after an hour of clicking his tongue. Still, I can’t imagine this isn’t a movie where a crowd would be synchronized emotionally so I’d say it see it… with people you know and trust.

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The Shape of Slash to Come

Film Title: Halloween

One of the easiest possible associations to make with Halloween, the 2018 horror film that is now the third movie in the franchise frustratingly by that name, is one with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. For indeed, Halloween ’18 (as I shall refer to it from here on in this review as this movie skips over all the other movies between it and the 1978 original but calling it Halloween II doesn’t work because there’s ALSO two other movies by that title) does more than a bit to imply a new future direction in the story of emotionless masked Shape of murderous evil Michael Myers’ (OG Nick Castle for special moments and James Jude Courtney for most of the screentime) and his semi-random focus on tormenting Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), one with final beats that imply that if Myers is to continue, he shall be focusing on someone new. And like The Force Awakens, Halloween ’18 sets this up by blatantly repeating the beats and greatest hits of not only John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece (who returns with his son Cody to score this iteration – I honestly think the difference is not all that remarkable but it was a perfect score to begin with), but at least giving the first three sequels knowing winks as well (as well as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre).

And like Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Halloween ’18 opts to forego a steady core story with unnecessary tangents that are mostly dead ends and one of which seems like a contrivance to facilitate a result that already felt inevitable. I am particularly dismayed that Halloween ’18 opted to be a two-hour slasher film when a 90-minute version of itself would have sufficed just as well. This does not bode very well for Halloween ’18 in my heart because those Star Wars movies are ones that I mutedly enjoyed on first watch and slowly decayed the more I thought about it. But to give Halloween ’18, the benefit of the doubt I ask significantly less of my slasher movies than I do of my space operas and I DID end up satisfied nonetheless.

For one thing, the fan service that is littered throughout the movie is of a gleeful sort that argues the soul of Halloween is how Myers’ actions are just as much consistent as they are relentless. For another thing, this film is in the very capable directorial hands of David Gordon Green who I am more fond of than J.J. Abrams (I cannot say I prefer Green to Johnson but I did think about it a lot), who should be returning to form any day now.

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This is not that return but the two of these elements – the fan service and Green’s presence – mix very well in my eye. The familiar patterns within the kills (at least the ones where we don’t see the act, only the grisly results) and the shot styles as his rampage aligns us with the characters as they recognize what’s going on this Illinois Halloween night. Even if Green does not utilize the widescreen spacing as well as Carpenter, though he does have a knack for creating pools of shadow and distressing that with the harsh blues and reds of police lights when shit goes wrong. Green and Carpenter also share the ability to transform a far from Midwestern town (this film was shot in Charleston, South Carolina) into feeling breezily autumnal in a Midwest way. Green’s direction is particularly much better at selling the subversion of Strode’s previous role as victim than Green or Danny McBride’s half-baked and overgluttoned screenplay did, such as a set of shots that is so exciting in how it reversed the roles between Myers and Strode that it made me cheer in the theater.

Perhaps the best surprise out of the entirety of the film is Green’s happy intentions to make the carnage and any aftermath we are lucky to walk in on really count for something. I can’t honestly decide which is the bigger standout: a hovering duo of long-shots (there’s a cut between them but one so intelligently placed that it doesn’t kill the momentum at all) where Myers stalks into homes, stealing weapons and murdering the matriarchs without any pause, promising to us that he has no intentions to hunt Strode and simply kills because he kills. Or a messy explosion of blood as we witness Myers’ boot slam into the skull of a character, a gauche and cartoonish end to the film’s most harebrained character.

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It is perhaps most unfortunate that the best elements of these things take a while to get there because Halloween ’18 thinks it has a complex plot to set up. One that thinks it needs to set up the high school life of a teenage girl or the disinteresting investigation work of annoying podcasters, the elimination of both of these solving most of my problems with the movie (particularly that the character most easy to hate is never even in danger of being murdered). McBride and Green particularly. want to explore the concept of Laurie’s PTSD but don’t really do much of the work to cut into it – they turn her into Sarah Connor without giving much of a clear psychological path between the girl crying against a wall at the end of the 1978 film and the stonefaced woman living in her personal fortress of guns, traps, and panic rooms 40 years later waiting for him to try again*.

Most of the heavy-lifting is put upon a game Curtis, who turns in a determination with cracking resoluteness and a deflecting refusal to acknowledge how her paranoia has broken her relationship with her daughter Karen (Judy Greer). In fact, practically any sense of character the movie gets comes from the actors present in the second half as Judy Greer plays Karen as somehow trying very hard to pretend her comfortable suburbia life can stifle memories of repressed childhood that her mother continues to bring and Andi Matichak as Karen’s daughter Andi, totally naïve about the threat out there and trying to retain a relationship with Laurie despite the strain between generations and Laurie’s emotional instability. If there is any reason I prefer Green’s Halloween to Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, despite finding both films thematically clumsy about trauma, it is because of these three women. Toby Huss and Will Patton aren’t nearly up to those three women but they maintain a rustic personability as men trying to take control of situations they should be responsible but aren’t equipped for. The only real loose end is sadly Haluk Bilgener as Myers’ psychologist Dr. Sartain (“the new Loomis”, Laurie sarcastically calls him), but he’s also saddled with a character that has no sense or logic to him on paper. The clear standout isn’t even a main actor, Jibrail Nantambu’s babysat child of Julian who feels like a mixed transient in his effortless naturalism and charm from George Washington and Eastbound and Down (my two favorite things Green and McBride have done).

Anyway, whole lot of fat is in Halloween ’18. Ignoring that part of the beauty of the original is its elegant simplicity. Simplicity that could have been recreated wholly from elements that are in Halloween ’18. So, it’s understandable why it’s been a disappointment to some. Hell, it’s already fading for me. I don’t see it holding up on rewatch where the deadwood will be prevalent and I have a remote that can fast-forward. But for right now, on first watch, I can’t lie and say that I got all I really wanted out of Halloween ’18: a functioning slasher film that delivered on the puerile violence I go to these movies for anyway. Even if I had to squint to get it.

*There is the attitude that this is a failed premise to begin with because Halloween H20: 20 Years Later… already had that fated reunion and just erasing the sequels doesn’t salvage the impact. It would be much easier for me to agree if I gave a fuck about H20.

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Kept Under Lock and…

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The future of the Insidious franchise is currently in question now that franchise writer Leigh Whannell is in doubt as to whether he wants to continue writing for it as the remaining co-creator (the other co-creator and his former collaborator, James Wan, has moved on since Chapter 2 to better things like skydiving cars, superheroes who talk to fish, and entertaining apologism for Christian con artists). Still the fourth and latest installment, Insidious: The Last Key, has already nudged itself in a direction that doesn’t seem very promising to me: it’s implied – nay, the very last scene of the film essentially propels it towards – a continuation without Lin Shaye’s presence*.

Now, I’ve eschewed the opportunity to write on the full series (maybe I’ll cover those gaps later this year), but let me tell you: it’s not a very consistent line-up, quality-wise. A large part of that happens to be the very disappointing insistence by Whannell’s writing to lean heavily on the overburdened mythology involving the blue-tinged spirit realm known as “The Further” and trying to use a lot of words just to say “demons live here and sometimes possess or influence living people” and the only way those words don’t really crash the whole thing down is because Shaye delivers most of that mythology with a sense of urgency that the material never earned one bit. Even that’s not the only merit about Shaye’s performance as medium demonologist Elise Rainier, but the fact that she’s a reliable source of warmth and personality, approaching her investigations in a superficially relaxed and assured manner as though she’s doing a solid for a friend despite how transparently draining this practice is for her. Even in spite of Shaye’s age, she has higher spirits as a 74-year-old woman tragically burdened by her abilities and responsibilities than I do as a 26-year-old who can’t talk to ghosts (… yet).

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The decision halfway through the run to turn this reliably compelling character from a late-film exposition delivery system to a protagonist has been a smart move for the longevity of the franchise and the character that The Last Key suggests will take over for Elise, her niece Imogen (Caitlin Gerard), unfortunately feels like a non-presence, especially given how a whole quarter of the runtime has her taking charge without being able to take charge. Perhaps if she could have, it would have distracted me further from the other horrifyingly reliable source of banality in the Insidious franchise, Elise’s bumbling ghost-hunter-parody assistants Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Whannell) and oh gawwwwwwd, if this franchise continues they’re also implied to continue tagging along while this time around hitting on Imogen and her sister Melissa (Spencer Locke).

So yes, I’m going to miss Elise a lot and fear what is to come for a franchise that I already wasn’t too fond of anyway. But I will say that Whannell and director Adam Robitel have put together a pretty fond farewell for the most part: The Last Key establishes the sort of toxic childhood Elise (played by Ava Kolker as a child and Hana Hayes as a teenager) went through in the 1950s in her family’s remote New Mexico home, exacerbated by her executioner father (Josh Stewart)’s abusive antagonism towards Elise’s powers and the sudden release of a noseless key-fingered demon (Javier Botet) who wastes no time murdering her protective mother (Tessa Ferrer), all of which leaving a rift between Elise and her brother/Imogen and Melissa’s father Christian (Bruce Davison).

Sometime after Insidious: Chapter 3 but shortly before the first Insidious, the now adult Elise and her partners get a call from her home’s new inhabitant Ted (Kirk Acevedo) reporting paranormal activity happening, forcing the reluctant Elise to face her past and particularly her feelings of guilt towards the key demon’s freedom and thereby her mother’s death (not to mention Christian holding Elise accountable for abandoning him when she ran away from home). And walking back into the domain of her childhood pain means unlocking secrets regarding its line of inhabitants that fundamentally shift the way she looks back on her hard memories.

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Now, of course, saying that the movie wants to deepen the Elise’s character one last time before she leaves the franchise does not necessarily mean it accomplishes that well: this is still a Whannell screenplay and he’s rarely shown a grip on how humans talk or behave on a superficial level, so the idea of going deeper into a full-on character study is much too daunting a task for the writer to do well on his own. Still, Robitel’s entry into the Insidious director’s holds up as well as his two predecessor’s (Wan and later Whannell taking his directorial debut with Chapter 3), able to jump into the formula they set for spooky haunted houses between the murky and earthy living world and the dingy dark blue shadows of the Further, even despite the relative goofy look of this movie’s demon (he lacks a palate and…) or the fact that Elise is missing in action for a hot minute and leaving us with characters that either are annoying or don’t feel present to drive the film.

Hell, it’s kind of by Robitel’s strength that the opening sequence is so distressing, utilizing Whannell’s need to have Elise abused, unleash Keyface, and kill off her mom in apparently one scene and one night and turning that unbalanced density into something that makes the momentum of the opening disorienting and uncomfortable. It’s affecting enough for us to align with Elise when Shaye gets to take over and even when Robitel doesn’t get that much narrative material to work with in one scare scene, he can still up the tension in the air so that it feels like maybe something of that power will occur (and he does get at least one more moment to do it: a game of hide-and-seek that occurs halfway through the film just after we’ve been given unsettling information about a character and climaxing without an out-of-character yet desperately violent act that leaves one of our protagonists shook).

Now, I’m going to admit there does come an early point where Robitel’s repetitions get more obvious to us and Insidious: The Last Key stops being scary (it also happens to unfortunately align with the absence of Elise, compounding the movie’s issues). Nevertheless, it goes far enough along the way so that we don’t have to wait long for an extremely satisfying resolution telegraphed by the constant presence of an item dear to Elise and Christian, aided enormously by Joseph Bishara’s score incorporating and foreshadowing an element of safety from Elise’s past and keeping that item present in his musical cues, and most of all smoothly facilitated by having its light source roll towards a heroic figure in such a silently climactic way. A wobbly descent can still be relieved from sticking the landing, something I’m not sure I can entirely acclaim The Last Key for doing when it ends on the sort unsubtle and clunky “here comes the first Insidious” note that it does. But even if I’m not sure I can call The Last Key a good movie, that final sequence involving the confrontation of old demons and the warmth with which it congratulates Elise is the sort of love for its character that stayed in my mind six months after watching it, even if it’s only the one character.

*Though this is not really set in stone, given that Chapter 2 is the chronologically latest entry and it ends on a note saying that Elise and her partners are still working, despite certain developments.

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I Can’t Hear Myself Think

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Film criticism – at least in the form of deciding on what a film does right or wrong, regardless of your admission to subjectivity – is an inherently narcissistic practice as is and when it comes down to deciding that the filmmaker in question really doesn’t get his own movie, that just makes things even more narcissistic no matter how subjective a work of art is and “la mort de l’auteur” aside on a work where you are decidedly not an authorial voice. And yet here I am, where my first thought about A Quiet Place every time it pops into my head is how director & co-writer John Krasinski (who also stars in it, lest we forget he’s an actor first and foremost; his fellow co-writers are Bryan Woods & Scott Beck) missed the extremely thin but notable line between making the film the simple yet effective monster movie thriller that it is and an exploration about the trespassing shock of noise in the midst of an atmosphere of silence.

That line is Marco Beltrami’s musical score.

It is not precisely a bad musical score, but it is not a very great one – resigning itself to telegraphing all the normal horror movie beats in unsubtle fashion – and I can imagine (and have encountered) those who have come out A Quiet Place finding it to be great in spite of that score, I can not imagine someone walking out finding it to be a strength or not thinking A Quiet Place would be better without it. It sucks away most of the tension like a vacuum that comes from the characters having to keep totally quiet, leaving only the basic literal tension of “most people if not all people do not want to get eaten by giant slimy CGI crab-monsters whose bodies are apparently made out of armored cochleas”. Which is still something, but a lot less experiential or immersive of an experience. And indeed, much of the praise for the film comes from the idea that it could immerse the audience into a conscious silence, but that was unfortunately not the entirety of my experience for the film (in fact, I’d say horror movies are exactly the kind that make audiences want to respond with “oh no” and audible gasps the moment something bad occurs. Which is exactly what went down in my theater, ignoring how the person I accompanied the theater with was trying to crack jokes and yeah I’m probably never watching a movie like this with him again).

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Anyway, the way one gets that A Quiet Place wants to be that little “cut the silence with a knife” picture is how the sound mix consciously accentuates isolated elements of the sound as disruptive enough to make a fellow whose survival depends on it jolt just a little bit. You don’t make that kind of decision if you don’t want sound and its absence to matter in a picture like that and it’s impressively done outside of Beltrami busting in at often-unnecessary moments.

It also wants to be a movie about the importance of parental responsibility where hopelessness surrounds the world completely (as this is indeed a post-apocalyptic film where those monsters have consumed the apparent majority of the human population and establishes that with dry, desolate rural terrains) or the strength of a family in a time where guilt and finger-pointing seem to be the easiest paths to choose in a time, focusing on a nuclear family fluent in American Sign Language made up of engineer/farmer (maybe? this is a movie of ambiguous visual clues to tell us about the way life is here) Lee (Krasinski) and his wife Evelyn (Krasinski’s real-life wife Emily Blunt) and his three children Beau (Cade Woodward), Marcus (Noah Jupe), and their eldest and deaf daughter Regan (real-life deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, following her brilliant debut in the apparently underseen Wonderstruck) and their struggles to keep things together in the wake of an opening scene tragedy that sets up stakes in a violent manner (violent for a PG-13 film, you understand).

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Such stakes that one would of course wonder what makes the decision for Evelyn’s apparently imminent pregnancy not look like a very very bad idea to the family* a little over a year after that opening scene (the movie takes place over two days after that scene), but nevertheless there they are preparing for the potentially noisy and definitely painful arrival of a baby into their “shut up or die” apocalypse world and it’s certainly something the actors prove to be qualified to portray with all the weight necessary to make this matter. Simmonds especially the resultant self-recrimination and frustrating lack of dialogue with his father without the slightest bit of overplaying it, given her knowledge on how to express her emotions without needing audible speech to do so.

Anyway, I guess my overall attitude on that family drama side of the material is likewise a “it’s not great, though it’s not bad either” element. Most of the emotional heavy-lifting has to be performed by its cast in the first place and it looks like at the very least Jupe is more interested into turning any moment of threatening danger into a moment of unmoving dread and fear (which he does very well). It’s perhaps the fact that the movie’s competent and frequently impressive thriller setpieces overwhelm the idea that it could ever be more than an early pre-summer thrillride and in a way, I don’t see why it should want to be more than that. I mean, even the complaint I had at the beginning of this review is more towards its function as a thriller than its possibility of elevating itself beyond genre cinema. And even with Beltrami as a handicap and a less-damaging-but-still-contrived series of character decisions and actions in the final act, A Quiet Place is directed very horror-movie-consciously in framing and pacing by Krasinski to pass itself as a worthy exemplar of popcorn cinema just before the season where we will get that dread-esque popcorn moviemaking by the dozen.

*I believe Demi Adejuyigbe said it best “why y’all fuckin during an apocalypse anyway“.

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American Vampire

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I haven’t been the first nor will I be the last to point out how Kathryn Bigelow, famed action filmmaker turned political filmmaker notable for being the very first woman to win the Best Director Oscar in 2010, got her in at the industry by focusing almost exclusively on the masculinity of genre action films and proving herself just as capable of working with that machismo as any other man behind the camera at the time. Indeed, given despite the fact that one could reasonably claim she only really made one pure action film (Point Break which might also be her best film), her ability to provide incredibly ambitious setpieces that matched or even outdid whatever Renny Harlin or John McTiernan was going around at that time sure as hell proved her to be top of the “Boys’ Club” and know how to bring testosterone to the screen in an unconscious way that ought to make other genre filmmakers really insecure about themselves.

And yet, her 1987 film Near Dark is possibly the only film that feels… aware of that masculinity – for is there any genre more manly man as the Western – existing in a very outwardly dangerous way. After all, her script co-written by Eric Red starts in an extremely libidinous way for its young Oklahoma cowpoke Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), who spots attractive pale drifter Mae (Jenny Wright) and pursues her in an uncomfortably aggressive manner. After a night of wrangling her in a very uncomfortable manner, especially in her fear of getting “home” before dawn, Caleb tries to coax her into kissing him and in frustration and attraction, she responds by biting Caleb’s neck and running off.

That bite is apparently enough to make it so hard for Caleb to walk down the morning horizon, his child sister (Marcie Leeds) and father (Tim Thomerson) witness in horror as he begins smoking and crisping black in the bright Oklahoma sun until he’s forcibly yanked into an RV inhabited by Mae and her fellow vampire drifter gang – sadistic psycho Severin (Bill Paxton), maturely sinister child Homer (Joshua John Miller), burly beauty Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), and cold leader Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen) – ready to slice his neck wide open until Mae points out he turned Caleb, saving his life and beginning their relationship with Caleb’s family racing to his rescue.

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Certainly both Point Break and The Hurt Locker are both self-aware of their masculinity, but both of them seem to be in sheer intoxication of the adrenaline rush that comes from asserting their manly selves and The Hurt Locker is an introspective study of how it’s kind of bad for the individual. Near Dark thinks that masculinity leaves nothing but a vile bloodbath and corpses in its wake. Hooker and company are essentially trying to push the reluctant young Caleb into killing alongside them, out of necessity for their survival and also frankly out of enjoyment for the bloodletting. It’s essentially a companion piece to The Lost Boys from the same year.

While The Lost Boys is a lot more light (being a semi-comedy) and the energy of the film is homoerotic between Kiefer Sutherland and Jason Patric, Near Dark is extremely harsh and unforgiving, ominous thanks to the tonal soundscape provided by Tangerine Dream, and very heterosexual in nature. Caleb’s young lust for Mae is what got him in the situation in the first place after all and it’s established very clearly that Homer is the character that hates Caleb most (his first move is to grab Caleb’s scrotum and threaten him if Homer’s name is mispronounced) and that hatred is established by Homer originally laying claim to Mae as a mate*. The juxtaposition between a child trying to claim a grown woman as his prize is unsettling enough, the knowledge that Homer’s much much older than the 11 year old body he’s in becomes more alarming when his new prey is on Caleb’s little sister. And Mae is the only source of Caleb’s relief from trying to kill others, letting him drink from her wrists rather than the truck drivers and street punks the rest of the gang find.

It’s not Miike Takeshi here, but it’s the bloodiest and most violent movie in Kathryn Bigelow’s entire corpus. And the casual manner in which bloodletting occurs in the movie only refuses to aestheticize or romanticize the chest-puffing attitude that brings an unglamorous body count with it. The blood’s dark and dirty, like nasty spit erupting that you feel like you have to wash off your screen. Adam Greenberg as cinematographer provides an unrefined duskiness to every shot that accentuates the grunginess of the gang’s attire and the darkness surrounding them – my favorite shot being an ominous backlit high-angle silhouette of the group against a wispy smoke screen – while the Oklahoma daylight horizon is at times given such a blown brightness to make it as hard to look at as it is for Caleb to walk within it. It doesn’t even need to get bloody for things to get alpha-male, for a throwaway moment of Severin and Hooker aiming pistols at each other cards feels like a joke that’s hard to laugh at in context.

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Greenberg’s texture to the visuals also grants Near Dark an tired and weary attitude that reminds us how badly it would love to be a great manly Western, but reminds us that demands blood. Henriksen’s Hooker is exactly the sort of wandering cowboy we’d expect to be full of wisdom and practicality except there’s also the clear indication that he likes killing and especially making those who he kills suffer horribly. In Near Dark‘s central bar massacre, he tries to toy and lure the server’s company signaling his sinister intentions immediately before Diamondback glibly slits her throat and Hooker fills a beer mug with her blood in excitement and informs everybody in that room they are going to die. When Hooker also charismatically declares that he was a Confederate soldier and his pride that they lost, it’s just another in a long line of chaotic evil expressions from an apparently collected individual.

Meanwhile, Severin’s the “life” of the massacre. He asserts his toxicity from the moment he steps foot into the bar, insulting everybody in the room, deliberately spilling drinks, causing fights (and goading Caleb to get into his own), and stalking the bartender on the very bar into a desperate corner (again a wonderful moment of Greenberg’s framing). It’s the most accomplished scene in the late Paxton’s life. He gives the sort of shitheel turn that feels full of danger and apathy that it’s impossible not to hate him at first appearance but it’s also just as impossible to tell him how much you hate him out of fear.

Unfortunately, as a result of Bigelow and editor Howard E. Smith’s no-nonsense action thriller pacing (which is mostly a strength), the nihilistic dive of Near Dark is cut short at the 3/4 mark when part of Caleb’s predicament is resolved, it feels like a shortcut to the climax than anything organic. Bigelow still has the sense to mostly soften the blow by using her sensibility of spectacle and newfound studio involvement to craft a great big dark Western streets showdown involving the heavy momentum and explosive outcome of a truck and preclude that with one more cowboy image of Caleb riding off tall to save the day on horseback, so Near Dark can stay on its feet until the final minutes. A couple of scenes of resolution doesn’t easily shake off the visceral nightmare that Caleb had to go through earlier.

*Funny enough, Miller – 11 years old at the time of filming – has grown up to be a successful screenwriter/show runner and is in an openly gay relationship with his writing partner, M.A. Fortin. Also coincidentally, he’s half-brothers with Jason Patric, the lead of The Lost Boys.
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Every Dead Body That is Not Exterminated Becomes One of Them. It Gets Up and Kills! The People It Kills Get Up and Kill!

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R.I.P. George A. Romero
1940-2017

So, it’s no secret that Night of the Living Dead is one of the movies that so viscerally changed my life as a film and that it is reserved that most esteemed seat in my heart as my favorite horror film of all time. I feel like the things Night of the Living Dead did for the genre were never bettered in the slightest since. And yet, common consensus seems to lean on its 1978 follow-up Dawn of the Dead being one of those rare cases of a sequel outperforming its predecessor and if I can’t really bring myself to love it more than Night, I still might just lean on the idea that Dawn is kind of the “better” movie in a sense.

Part of it is having to just come to the conclusion that, despite being some scraggly ol’ hipster who loved the genuine lo-fi work of Night of the Living Dead and the way Romero squeezed atmosphere out of every single limitation he had and from sheer creativity, Dawn of the Dead is objectively more polished and thus a lot more focused as a horror film and as a social commentary. For of course, like its predecessor, Dawn of the Dead in itself is a very dedicated commentary ingrained inside the presentation of a zombie movie and unlike Night, it does take a good amount of digging into it to find audiences looking into a mirror about how the then-alarming growth of suburban shopping malls as a hub for community interaction deteriorates human interaction and turns folks into mindless followers of blind consumerism and BTWTHEREISNOETHICALCONSUMPTIONUNDERCAPITALISM… *clears throat*.

But there’s just so much more ambition in Dawn of the Dead that Romero gets to act upon from square one that distinguishes the movie from the very first shot with a wash of bold and textured red – distinguishing itself from Night‘s black and white – that widens and focuses to reveal it was simply a close-up of the carpeted wall of a local Philadelphia news station already three weeks deep in the outbreak and shutting off its broadcast soon. It’s here where producer Francine (Gaylen Ross) and traffic pilot Stephen (David Emge) decide to steal one of the helicopters for their own personal escape, which… guys, a helicopter! Romero gets to use a helicopter and gives his characters more mobility (and thus the zombie infection more scope) than in the claustrophobic trap of Night‘s isolated house (though again… I prefer Night in that sense, I just find Dawn‘s approach impressive!).

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During their escape, they also pick up SWAT team member Roger (Scott Reiniger) in the middle of his brutal and consciously racist police raid of a housing project. During this raid, we get to witness the full extent of the zombification of the dead and the escalating violence in no time introduces us to Tom Savini’s landmark zombie makeup and gore – comic book greys to neutralize any details in a person’s face without losing their aged look (this becomes clearer as characters we see die and return as zombies), vibrant red blood so we know somebody is maimed and the gore is the first thing our eyes target, and an all-timer of a head explosion. The sort of violence you get in a 70s cop picture put now to a darker context that demands you reckon with the amorality of the SWAT’s fascist exercise of power on the poor and cold disposal of their bodies in a practical sense. In a moral breakdown atop the building, Roger meets the hardened but humane Peter (Ken Foree) and invites him in the escape group, thereby rounding their aimless flight out of the city.

After finding out staying in the air is easier said than done, they make their personal base out of the Monroeville Mall, a huge construct of shops and restaurants and other resources that they take much time turning into their own fortress of personal goods. And at first, it’s relatively fun as a bonding exercise to have them figure out plans and ways to maintain the whole location for a long time, but soon after it becomes frighteningly insulated and the activities they try to indulge in – now that they have everything they want locked away from the world – like Stephen and Fran’s makeshift restaurant date (with a shockingly dark punchline cut to it), just feel like attempts to pretend the world isn’t dying outside those walls, even despite Peter’s steely residence near screens to illuminating the insanity going on with psychotic talking heads and Fran’s insistence that the mall won’t last. It’s a weighty portrayal of the apathy privileged people have to others’ suffering when it’s distanced and the way that Romero shoots the even the maintenance hallways and vents with plenty of space between the cameras and characters sells Monroeville Mall as just as openly empty as the lives of our four.

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That’s without recognizing how effectively uneventful Dawn of the Dead becomes very quickly. From the moment the news duo pick up the SWAT duo, the movie doesn’t really have a narrative object or target outcome. The characters have few places to express anything beyond sheer survivalism (though they’re all embodied by great performances) and until maybe the 2/3 moment – punctuated by a stressing waiting game turned into a headshot – their detours are almost strictly utilitarian. And so they earn the R&R they take in Monroeville, but it still feels sheltered and naive to do so in their condition and their personalities are clearly clashing enough to promise their eventual exile from the shelter they found. It’s almost the Tokyo Story of horror films in how much time you understand is wasted watching these folks try to deflect the inevitable.

I realize I’m not delivering this as humorous, but that’s one other thing about Dawn of the Dead. Its sense of levity and personality – most largely supplied by Italian prog rock band Goblin**’s iconic score overselling the eerie nature of a giant empty mall (the most iconic musical cue of Dawn, “The Gonk”, is in fact not Goblin’s creation) and a climax that precludes its intense horror and hopelessness with a disarming amount of pie fights – is what prevents Dawn from turning into an overwhelmingly nihilistic film in spite of all its observations about humanity, especially in consideration of the alternate ending it was forced to shelve due to budgetary restrictions*. And this is probably where I especially end up preferring Night as a film, because it’s fearless in selling its themes angrily and with vicious bite. Dawn still finds itself watchable and insightful due to its craft and survives the theatrical ending turning out to be the film’s only flaw.

There’s only so much you can stretch out of the budget and narrative constraints of a single-location story that demands its characters, save for Fran, refuse to evolve due to their egos, but Night already made good on Romero’s promise to deliver on that and Dawn of the Dead is the result of him trying to push it further and build as a filmmaker. When one recognizes that the driving force of the zombie genre has to be its characters cooped up, Dawn of the Dead is the ultimate zombie film to bring that out. And being made in the ultimate middle ground between the updated budget of an esteemed filmmaker but the creative freedom of an independent feature, Romero ends up with the ultimate movie to show his heart, his ideas, his glee, and even the city he came from that he clearly loved for supporting his dreams and letting him shooting in malls and airfields and news stations. There’s probably no better film to remember and revisit him by.

*Allegedly, the particular dummy needed for the grim final note of that alternate ending was considered unfinished and couldn’t be used so they just had it the target of that famous head explosion in the housing raid.
**Goblin was of course at the time collaborated with Italian giallo icon Dario Argento, who also famously helped Romero with the development of the film.

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You Blow That Candle Out, We’re Gonna Kill You. Kill You.

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I don’t think I’ve ever seen a slasher film as pleasant as Happy Death Day and I doubt I ever will. The only true contender for that spot is Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and there’s definitely a bit more viciousness in its third act than there is in the entirety of Christopher B. Landon’s third feature film. For most people that might be quite the dealbreaker, especially in the expectation that a horror film has to… y’know horrify kind of. But I’ve never been one to consider slasher films a subgenre to hold to for its scariness and the fact that Happy Death Day takes full pleasure in stretching out the novelty of its premise in a manner that’s kind of genial doesn’t make me regret the number of times I laughed and enjoyed myself during the whole thing.

That very premise being how nursing student Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) has been living her life in flippant antagonism towards everyone and everything around her and her hedonistic life has found her at the end of a butcher’s knife the night of her birthday. Only she wakes up again on her birthday morning in the same boy’s dorm of Carter’s (Israel Broussard) and a bit more wary of what she might assume was a dream that felt too real, tries to deviate her path slightly only to once again find herself stabbed to death by the same BabyFace Masked. And with that death, she wakes once again understandably freak out by the time loop she’s stuck in – enduring her birthday over and over with the same violent end, trying to find a way to circumvent the loop and stop her murderer.

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Or the elevator pitch version “Groundhog Day as a slasher”. There’s even a button of a scene where they name-drop Groundhog Day as a “yeah, we totally ripped off that movie” statement without adding the weird attitude of “… And because we said it, you can’t call us out for that” that most self-aware horror seems to want to adopt as bet-hedging. Happy Death Day‘s script by comic book writer Scott Lobdell is less concerned with pointing out the absurdity of its premise and more concerned with finding a way to make it fun without being the butt of a joke. And it certainly has a sense of humor about itself, but one that gets to exist side-by-side with Tree’s frustrations at waking up, being killed, and repeated and how that affects her day-to-day mood. It’s that dissimilar from the idea that we’re all different people every time we wake up, though I’m doubtful that was on Lobdell or Landon’s mind and that they merely wanted some semblance of a character development arc as Tree recognizes just how arbitrarily she was treating her sorority sisters, her father, Carter, and the professor she’s having an affair with and see how much of her problems she can shelve in the hopes that she survives to the next night.

It’s a lot shallower than that on paper but Jessica Rothe is pretty much a miracle of a performer, an exhausted and sarcastic pillar of charisma that gives this movie all she can to have some semblance of momentum based on the way she evolves and learns about herself. And despite indulging at points in the sort of shallow catty bitchiness that outs movies like this as obviously written by a guy who saw Mean Girls once and didn’t get it, it also has the same sort of forgivability as Mean Girls. We don’t really hate Tree on the first loop and by the middle of the film, we feel her annoyance at every single slip-up that lands her in bloodless mortem (the editing takes advantage of the PG-13 nature of the film to make smash cuts play as punchlines a la Edge of Tomorrow and Groundhog Day, especially in a Demi Lovato-tuned montage and a ringtone allegedly created for the movie that actually sounds creepier than anything in Bear McCreary’s cliched score), and by the time she’s kind of figured it out, her joie du vivre is pleasantly earned in the face of how Rothe takes every new step differently (Broussard kind of follows up with different responses to the same event, but even at second-best in show – partly because he just shows up the longest – he’s just not on Rothe’s level). Maybe it’s partly in the aftermath of having just finished binging The Good Place, which accomplishes similar things but honestly better, but Happy Death Day‘s intention to see a miserable unhealthy person grow into something better makes me more willing to see it all the way through, even in spite of Lobdell’s ethic lapses. It certainly has some obvious Eszterhas-level attitudes about women (especially in its third act which feels like the weakest element of the script), Macklemore-level naivete about sexuality, and the in-sorority bullying of the one non-murderer character we’re meant to hate is clearly racially coded. But none of those things pop their heads long enough for me to not have fun.

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And this is all sounding like I’m not really interested in it as a horror film and I don’t want to pretend I think it’s a bad horror film. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but its treatment of the blue cold hospital, the tall cavernous clock tower, and a creepily cartoon killer mask based on the college setting’s mascot (by the way, who would possibly find a football team called the Babys intimidating?) is at the very least on the better side of Blumhouse cliches as possible and Happy Death Day certainly wants you to know that even if Tree’s never truly in danger, she still feels threatened and trapped in slowly canting angles and surprise light blowouts. But it also isn’t very much concerned with elevating itself as horror. Honestly, if it weren’t for the comedic tone which isn’t even all that unique, Happy Death Day would feel entirely like just another forgettable horror film that happens to work enough that you don’t demand a refund.

Still and all, Happy Death Day can’t help sharing its enjoyment of digging into a hat of tropes and using its horror identity as a source of things beyond the genre. Like It, the bigger horror film of the year, I’m not singing its praises high and far but I am more than willing to relive it like Tree did (given that I literally walked out of a second screening before I could finish this review) and it’s not freaking me out that I did.

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Float On

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My main problems against the idea of Andrés Muschietti’s smash hit horror film It were things that weren’t out of the control of the people making the film, but it doesn’t reflect my feelings on the movie outside of the context of its source material. Those problems were inherent in the producer’s decision to split the giant tome of Stephen King’s perhaps most popular book into two movies and to move the time periods from 1950s and 1980s to 1980s and (I’m guessing for the inevitable second film) 2010s. It is impossible to miss the logic behind both decisions: production costs* and narrative integrity of a modern classic. But it means you lose the pointed criticism of Rockwellian Americana nostalgia by taking away the very basis of said nostalgia and it means that the second movie has to do a lot of hard work cut for it to accomplish narrative momentum – something both the miniseries’ adult storyline and frankly the book’s don’t do well without cross-cutting – or give depth on the theme of trauma and memory without deferring to clunky stock footage from the predecessor.

Anyway, these are concerns I’ve had with the production, still have long after seeing the film, and I wouldn’t mention them if I didn’t think they’re valid, but that’s not the movie itself. Talking about the movie itself is recognizing that it’s a pleasant and enjoyable experience depending on which angle I’m coming from.

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King’s childhood half of the novel is brought to life by a draft of Cary Fukunaga and Chase Palmer’s script redone by Gary Dauberman following the disappearance of 7-year-old Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) one rainy October night in 1988 as he left to float a paper boat made by his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher). The following summer shows that Bill, who suffers from a stutter, is still affected by his lack of answer for Georgie’s well-being but we know the full story because we watched as Georgie lamented his boat’s departure into a storm drain and peeked in to find the grinning ghostly visage of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), who deliberately lures Georgie into a shockingly violent end.

Meanwhile, Bill and new kid Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) are independently noticing an accelerated amount of disappearances happening in their town of Derry and slowly The Losers’ Club, an alliance of young outsider kids, prepares to fight against Pennywise’s historied terrorizing of the town.

Here’s my main gripe with It: I think it’s a bad horror movie on the constructed elements. Its scare scenes are not only repeated setpiece remakes from Muschietti’s breakout short film Mamá kid looks behind him or around the corner to face a deformity and get chased out of the space – telegraphed frequently by Benjamin Wallfisch’s obnoxious score, but the first hour or so of the film keeps feeling busted in pacing by arranging itself as occasional, nearly unrelated first act vignettes of these jump scare moments as each member of the Losers’ Club encounters Pennywise at least once until they meet each other**.

But Skarsgard IS scary. Taking a different approach to King’s monster than Tim Cutty’s 1990 miniseries performance, Skarsgård adopts an exaggerated stance like he’s a big sock puppet or balloon animal extension of some other bigger monster. His clowniness feels like a costume, right down to the primal growl underneath his floaty voice. He’s so off in presence that it’s impossible not to feel threatened by his stare, a broken attempt to warmly make contact with his prey disorganized by the fantastic eye movements Skarsgård provides. Even underneath a sheen of CGI, Skarsgård’s screen presence creeps in as the sole motor to the horror angle of It.

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Whereas It can still work phenomenally well as a movie about a group of kids growing brave in one terrifying summer instead. Not that the script does them any favors – Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and Stan (Wyatt Oleff) are practically hosed on paper with how much character is removed, though Oleff himself has one of the best heart-breaking freakout moments late in the film – but the actors themselves are so full of personality that they’re able to embody the puerile, excitable youthfulness of 1980s kids in a genuine unfiltered way. Sure, the way loudmouth Richie (Finn Wolfhard) doesn’t shut up and keeps making dumb sex jokes bemuses me as much as his hypochondriac foil Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), but it bemuses me in the way that all kids from the 80s do and it feels honest.

It may be contradictory to what It‘s attitudes on nostalgia are, but that’s nevertheless its strength – portraying small-town childhood memories in warm timelessness (aided significantly by Chung Chung-hoon’s soft outdoor cinematography, doubled down on darkness in the horror moments). The cast of It makes that movie, breaking out of shallow characterizations to provide lived-in relationships and friendships that not even the best writing could provide. It even deviates away from the notoriously bad final beat of the book to something more innocuous. This despite the fact that the only character that’s fleshed out well is tomboy Beverly Marsh in how much screentime is dedicated to her sexually (much more explicit here than in the book) abusive homelife and so it’s no shock when Sophia Lillis comes out with arguably the best performance in the movie, one where all her fears and anxieties inform every second of her screentime and she’s able to use that as a basis on every emotional decision. Personally, my favorite is Taylor, whose attempts at casually hiding his sense of dislocation in the new town and consciousness of the evil within it come off as kind of charming. Plus, his ability to visually emote the crush Ben has on Bev is so adorable.

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But anyway, the town of Derry as a location is built on the cast’s response to it. Muschietti and company don’t really do much to help us feel like people are disappearing around us because we don’t have time to know the town before it jumps into spooks mode and its personality feels only slightly less anonymous than the cobble of locations in Stranger Things, but it still feels grounded in time enough to have some tangible atmosphere as living memory***. And I mean, that’s where the darker moments in the kids’ lives gets to have some real punch: interrupting their camaraderie to divide them emotionally is what helps It work out its main premise of small-town horror, despite the handicaps the movie gives itself.

It could be a much better horror film (I honestly yearn for the alternate universe where Fukunaga stayed on as director – though there are elements of the script that had to go), but as an adaptation of a moment in a boy’s life where he has to face the anxiety surrounding him, there’s little improvement possible.

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*Though it seems like even on that end, the movie skims the price tag. There’s a hilarious tweet of a guy nitpicking a single Lego block used in the background, but I’m thinking of a character beat of a wide shot towards a wall of tampons that all have noticeably 2016 packaging. Incidentally, talking about this in public with a friend led to an eavesdropping teenager who asked how I’d recognize that and we (alongside another eavesdropping woman) subsequently informed him that he’ll come to the day when his girlfriend sends him for tampons.
**The miniseries is inferior to the film in most ways, but they at least got this structurally downpat by making each initial encounter a kid had with Pennywise function as an extended flashback of trauma after they receive Mike’s call.
***Most especially aided by the fact that the movie removes all the cosmic elements of the novel – which work well for the book but seem overkill as a cinematic story – and makes the terror localized into Pennywise. But from what I understand, Chapter Two has intentions to involve the cosmic elements. Ugh.

I’ve Got a Blank Space, Baby, and I’ll Write Your Name

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It’s really really tough to approach Death Note with an open mind, though I try, and I don’t mean it in the same way everybody else does. Much as I am indeed a fan of the original manga and anime series revolving around the notebook that can kill any person whose name is entered on it, it is simply as a casual one and I was more than open to a new take of the story. But I’ve never really been fond of Adam Wingard’s style of horror (of which Death Note is only cursorily such) and while I’m interested in what he could do without his partner-in-crime Simon Barrett at the pen, teaming him with Jeremy Slater – writer of the disastrous Lazarus Effect – is something I’d imagine to be an even worse scenario than Wingard/Barrett. And the result feels emblematic of the problems I have with both authors.

Slater’s is easier to identify, the guy has such an impatient want to do everything possible at once with a story that he can’t actually recognize his limitations or streamline them into a singular narrative. To be fair, this is one of my biggest problems with the original Death Note source but this adaptation is much more concentrated being in 101 minute form and so it stares at me in the face harder. The movie will glance for two seconds at infamous serial killer “Kira”‘s cult-like following and then forget about it for an hour. Or leap a whole step in developing the relationship between Light Turner (Nat Wolff, a grievous Achilles heel for the part) and Mia (Margaret Qualley) enough that we could buy it as anything more than puppy love that stemmed out of their involvement in the “Kira” murders and vigilante justice partaken by Light’s Death Note. There’s an even bigger leap with the animosity between Light and detective L (Keith Stanfield) as L confronts Light with nothing more than circumstantial evidence despite the movie insisting he’s smarter than that.

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The biggest sign of Slater’s inability to make a decision on what he wants Death Note to be is the fact that it starts off feeling like it’s ready to turn into an irreverent gore-a-thon at the first death, a messy decapitation, and the few following after, but suddenly (and you can pinpoint exactly when the moment is because it fades to black right before) wants to be a seriously cliched mystery thriller of wits between two characters where Light is simply not compelling enough to make it an interesting fight (L on the other hand has moments that seem like a whiplash of logic on paper but Stanfield valiantly makes them work as much as possible – there’s only two scenes where I think he fails).

Making it even less interesting is Wingard’s unfortunate inability to treat the material with anything more than an attitude that “this is a ridiculous premise so we’ll just make it all seem dumb”. His continued insistence on treating his films with a detached sense of irony (as is the case in You’re Next and The Guest) only leaves me as a viewer with a frustrated lack of obligation to give a shit about Light’s struggle to stay ahead of the investigation running after him and Mia, headed by his father (Shea Whigham, the only other good presence in this movie besides Stanfield, this time by embodying his own arc about a father desperately trying to keep his son in his life). I don’t think it’s an accident on his part to focus more on Light/Mia than Light/L and make the former relationship so absolutely unbelievable in its lack of chemistry or sincerity to do anything more than make a punchline of its extremely contrived and conventional third act, but it is a big mistake that invalidates the hour and a half I spent watching. The glibness might have been tolerable early on when full of splashy gore effects for every sudden death, but at its climax, the movie ends up infuriating.

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Let alone how much of the movie feels like Wingard is ashamed of his work, what with the matter of having Ryuk (motion-captured by Jason Liles; voiced by a disappointingly neutral Willem Dafoe), the Shinigami Death God attached to Light’s Death Note, be forced into a corner as much as they can to cover up the effects work and having almost no involvement in the plot proper except to be a red herring. And then there’s still the matter that this is aesthetically one of the least interesting things Wingard ever made. Despite a nostalgic light opening montage and a wonderfully gruesome middle aftermath setpiece, almost everything else in the high school scenes is shot flatly beyond arbitrary Dutch angles. It’s ridiculously boring to look at otherwise and the most only other inspired moments in the film aesthetically are retreads of better scenes in Wingard’s filmography (the climaxes of The Guest and Blair Witch, both I’d daresay the only great moments in his career and both better movies than Death Note). The only time it gets to feel like it has personality is with needle drops that undercut the moment so abruptly it just reminds me of Wingard in the studio, giggling “this is such a dumb story”.

It may be a dumb story, but you made it. You directed it. You made decisions that establish its lead character as a totally idiotic fool and took it in terrible creative directions when there were obviously better paths to take. Being surprised that Death Note is being ripped apart for a movie where it feels like the director didn’t care whether it was good or bad is like being surprised when you drop dead after writing your name in the Death Note.

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