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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The 2017 Popcorn Frights Film Festival Short Films

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Another year, another summer’s end, another return to O Cinema Wynwood with the upcoming Third Annual Popcorn Frights Film Festival, right here in Miami, FL. And that means more features moving up from last year’s 16 to a whopping 21, including a section dedicated to Florida-based production entitled Homegrown. And full sell-outs by this point with every opening night feature, though that’s no reason not to take a chance on the rush line.

And that means more shorts, so same as last year – courtesy of co-founders and co-directors Igor Shteyrenberg and Marc Ferman – I’m gonna be giving a quick look at almost every one of them to tell you what to expect between 11 – 17 of August.

And looking back at it all, there’s even more variety than last year, enough to promise there may be something for every single type of horror-goer and nothing less than decent overall. It’s exciting to think about who will respond to what over the coming week, so allow me to introduce each one.

Great Choice

Great Choice (dir. Robin Comisar)
Playing Friday 11 August 7 pm before Tragedy Girls

Great Choice has a Catch-22: on the one hand, Carrie Coon is so well-known in 2017 as a face that the structural exercise can’t surprise us the way I would love it to (this would have found its home on Adult Swim at midnight). On the other hand, Coon’s performance (against a very foreboding Morgan Spector) really sells the cosmic horror of the thing and I wouldn’t trade her out of this for the world, salvaging even the out-of-step ending. Even if Coon wasn’t in the short, Comisar has provided us with the outstanding kind of physical video experimentation – mixing in and out of aged television textures with colors like a bad photograph and sharp arresting high definition in 1.78:1 (breaking out of TV’s 3:4) like if an Everything Is Terrible! video collapsed and threatened to crawl out of the screen and suck you in. Wart of an ending and all, this is probably my favorite short of the lineup (Buzzcut and Hell Follows gives it a fight).

THE THIN PLACE

The Thin Place (dir. Alexander Mattingly)
Playing Friday 11 August 9 pm preceding Jackals

Mattingly has a very good sense of timing and spacing to create terror but my one major gripe is the ending and I don’t think it would have bothered me as much if what preceded it didn’t impress me. For one, it seems too abrupt after nearly 15 minutes was spent with Arlene (Lindsey Shope) trying to find out what’s happening to her daughter Maddy (Kelsey Blackwell) and it’s more interesting drama than it deserves to be, with Blackwell’s delivery of Maddy describing her headspace when the creature (Faye Davis) stalking their home abducts her are unsettling. Maybe if the plot was a bit more thin, that ending wouldn’t have bothered me but I hardly think Mattingly and Hemphill should remove anything from a tight 15 minutes. And then there’s the real killer: Mattingly and S.T. Davis do outstanding things with the shadows and spaces for a low-budget production. Our first look at the creature is a great bit of “what was that?” unfocused movement in the far end of a frame that feels like the scare you get seeing something from your peripherals. And all the other teases of the creature between that moment and the ending are just as crawling and alarming as you could hope for. And then that ending shot is so underlit as to be anticlimatic. And that’s heartbreaking for what a great thing Mattingly and Davis had going. But ending on a bad note hardly ruins the whole song.

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Die! Sitter! Die! Rupert (dir. Lee & Sam Boxleitner)
Playing Friday 11 August 11:30 pm preceding Terrifier

Well, I’m not gonna pretend the movie is at all bad. It’s a perfectly fine work of horror craft, especially in its gruesome though clearly budgeted treatment of the trashy gore people would want out of such a premise. But it’s also exhaustingly sadistic. And I don’t know if removing the early subplot of the mom’s chemotherapy and the lead’s hard financial times would have made it feel less mean-spirited but it would have gotten rid of a lot of wasted runtime for a motivation we kind of don’t need for something like this (You don’t need to be broke to find $12,000 for one night’s work enticing and by the middle mark it’s very clear that she’s motivated by fear for her life). Either way, I’m still a sucker for hard reds and blues in horror and Rupert’s a very imposing presence by Boxleitner himself – less grotesque than one would expect a grown man pretending to be a baby, but still frightening from how in control he is – so there’s no room to call this a failure in anyway. I’m just not the audience for it.

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Buzzcut (dir. Mike Marrero & Jon Rhoads)
Playing Saturday 12 August 5 pm as part of the Homegrown program

It’s nothing Sam Raimi hasn’t already perfected, but not even Raimi has been reaching that apex since 2009 and Marrero and Rhoads get closer than any episode of Ash vs. Evil Dead. It’s a fantastically dense short for its length, frenetically establishing the rapture, the cannibal demon monsters and making it all seem so elliptical to Jane’s quest to get a haircut. The semi-episodic nature, the punk rock needle drops (although there’s one song choice that isn’t broad enough to work for me), and Kelly Jane’s frustrated no-nonsense performance as a foil to all the madness makes this 9 minute feature have all the efficient excitement of a feature without feeling like the joke went on for too long. It also gets points by me for making a very sex positive portrayal of an lesbian relationship without getting male-gazey about it despite two men directing, so right on.

Midnight Service

The Midnight Service No. 2 – Home Invasion (dir. Brett Potter & Dean Collin Marcial)
Playing Saturday 12 August 5 pm as part of the Homegrown program

The first of two internet document episodes, this one a pseudo-documentary produced by our local Borscht Corporation (who also produced Great Choice) and based on the testimony of NY-based comedian Kat Toledo on her possible break-in encounter with the missing delinquent Quincy Lemon and the alleged brushfire that occurred right outside the Everglades home she was house-sitting but had no clue about. And despite the extremely neat and structured manner Potter and Marcial (there is no credited editor so I assume they’re responsible for it) present this multi-tiered and mysterious tale, I can’t say I have a clear picture on everything that happened. Maybe that’s intentional to give us a bunch of pieces and see if we can make them fit together, but I would assume that the creepy atmosphere wants us to find at least some supernatural answer within it. In any case, it’s also fantastically gorgeous both in its representation of nighttime interiors and its landscape photography of the watery greens of the Everglades (again, no cinematographer credited) so I can’t say I wasn’t highly enjoying it.

Primal Scream

This Wooden Boy (dir. Rodney Ascher)
Playing Saturday 12 August 5 pm as part of the Homegrown program

Yet another documentary internet episode for the Homegrown program. I think short format fits Rodney Ascher much better as a documentarian. An episode of the new Shudder original series Primal Screen, the 30-minute runtime forces the director/editor to include more narrative and thematic focus than the tangle of his popular features Room 237 and The Nightmare. Not entirely focused, since its still floating between several different stories of fears of dolls and dummies in a freeform manner that doesn’t clarify between three similar adult narrations (plus Ascher’s habit of adding in unnecessary tv/film clips appears here in the form of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal) but it clearly draws a throughline between pop culture in television (capturing the Screen part of the show title) to the public consciousness to the psyche of its subjects fearing all of these dolls. It’s a very sharp and interesting watch, aided by Ascher’s direction of recreations using black negative space to sell the subconscious memory aspect of these recreations.

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Fierce (dir. Izu Troin)
Playing Saturday 12 August at 9 pm preceding Mayhem

So I’m not 100 percent on the story being a parable for workplace aggression and the dog-eat-dog world of corporate work (it seems to only function in the bookends of the short rather than the actual meat of the protagonist’s hunt), but I am always 100 percent on watching some new animation and this French production is pretty detailed in both the shocking gruesomeness of the violence – splatching red against the otherwise muted browns and greys – and the sort of smeared, outside-of-the-lines style of the thing has enough shape to establish who is where and already gives a feeling of visual momentum before the chase even truly begins. And that’s without even acknowledging the interesting artistic choice of having the frame constantly moving in a fluid manner as though in a handheld camera. A short that wants you exhausted and catching your breath by the end of it.

CURVE

Curve (dir. Tim Egan)
Playing Sunday 13 August 11:30 pm preceding The Endless

Oh boy, was that anxiety-inducing. A simple premise – a girl (Laura Jane Turner) is trapped on an impossible incline with an abyss below and one leg already broken – and enough time to make it feel unbearable and hopeless, no less thanks to undetailed design of her apparent prison and the depressing gray palette of the whole thing. It’s nothing but an exercise in patient fear-building and nihilism and it’s an extremely effective one at that for all of its limited resources.

A KNOCK ON THE DOOR

A Knock at the Door (dir. Katrina Rennells & Wendie Welldon)
Playing Sunday 13 August 9:30 pm preceding Better Watch Out

A subtle and short throwback to scary tales of domesticity being violated (particularly a famous classic sci fi feature), helped out by a sense of physical place for the house in which nearly all of the 8 minutes of the story takes place, only breaking out to establish the behavior that should be setting off a red flag for our man Nick (Drew Jenkins) and then for a final beat showing what’s to come. It’s pretty straightforward and gets the tension going enough for its final beat (no real climactic payoff but there’s a gotcha moment), which is good work for a horror short to accomplish.

Fucking Bunnies

Fucking Bunnies (dir. Teemu Niukkanen)
Playing Sunday 13 August 11:30 pm preceding 68 Kill

Wow, “Fucking” seriously translates in Finnish to “Saatanan”? That’s gnarly, I love the design of the title. I also can’t help loving the short, which is not remotely “horror” – at no point does the genial demon-war-painted face of Maki (Janne Reinikainen) come across as threatening, even when he’s holding a kitchen knife joking about his killing his new neighbors (and I think superintendent) Rami (Jouko Puolanto) and Kirsi (Minna Suuronen). Nor do I think Niukkanen wants it to be, Puolanto’s off-put anxieties about Maki’s Satanic lifestyle is clearly meant to be in the wrong and the result is a pretty funny short that’s a lot more layered about cultural differences than meets the eye (the patronizing way Rami greets the Senegalese janitor with “Jambo”, a shot where Rami practices ejecting Maki that is framed to look like him lecturing an immigrant family). It’s actually so pleasant that I only really don’t care for the sudden needle drops of black metal, probably meant to push the viewer into feeling as apprehensive as Rami which I don’t think we need. But then I’ve never been a fan of Finnish black metal (Norway represent!), so that might just be my own bias showing much as Rami’s.

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Couples Night (dir. Robert & Russell Summers)
Playing Monday 14 August 7 pm preceding Lake Bodom

There is nothing to comment on negatively in the least – the performances are all broadly fitting for their characters attitude, one couple being as sinister as you can be without it being scary and the other being manically pleasant in an alarming one – there’s just also not much for me to praise with a short. I don’t want to call artless, but it isn’t visually interesting. Not that it needs to be to work out in the end as a fine little brief comic gag to whet some horror movie appetites. We’re not looking for something weighty here.

2AM

2AM (dir. Huseyin Hassan)
Playing Monday 14 August 11 pm preceding Happy Hunting

So, let’s just toss aside the fact that we have an idea where this story is going from square one when its established that our protagonist Alex (voiced by Mark Kenfield) is looking through an asylum and absolutely know how it’s gonna end the moment Dr. Hattaro (Akira Bradley carrying the human element as the only amicable face we see the whole movie) align our understanding of the plot a third into the 15 minute short. Despite that, it’s still a really excellent execution of such a recognizable plot type, provided by a whole 15-minute uncut first person point of view that sinks us into Alex’s clear descent into madness (something Hassan really wants to sell as Alice in Wonderland esque, but I didn’t find that necessary). What really impresses me is how seamlessly the ghostly presence of Nichola Jayne’s character can pass in and out of frame, alongside the sound mix helping us feel surrounded by the things that haunt Alex’s walk into the truth. It’s basically “you are here” experiential horror, done no differently than the infamous playable teaser to the cancelled Silent Hills and that includes being as well-done and very entertaining.

HELL FOLLOWS

Hell Follows (dir. Brian Harrison)
Playing Tuesday 15 August 9:30 pm preceding Psychopaths

Now here’s some really daring stuff: something that gives Great Choice a run for its money. Harrison, in the span of 10 minutes, provides a very genuine anti-genre short: those genres being yakuza and revenge. Much of it is the anticipation towards a certain revenge being taken, carried by the paced duel performance of Iba Takuya. But it’s so stylized – in a coldly metallic black-and-white for the majority of the runtime and a frenetic jarring editing manner including overblown (and sometimes recognizable) needle drops to keep us disoriented and on-edge – that it’s still exciting to be in anticipation for the very thing our narrator Ishimatsu is dreading. It essentially feels like what you’d get if Tsukamoto Shinya was told he could have one long monologue scene for his short film (which is dishonest of me, there’s much more going on here narratively than that including a wonderful climax in bold color) and decided to make it the most electrifying thing ever out of spite.

THE TICKLE MONSTER

Tickle Monster (dir. Remi Weeks)
Playing Wednesday 16 August 7 pm preceding It Stains the Sands Red

Another great little teaser. Some great cutting to make a novel idea both amusing and tense at the same time, but some of the underlighting within the final minute where the scares are being heightened becomes more frustrating than frightening and the opening shots within the room are too well-lit to make that feel deliberate. Still a fantastic pay-off in the end.

IMEDIUM

iMedium (dir. Alfonso Garcia)
Playing Wednesday 16 August 9:30 pm preceding Still/Born

So, iMedium is my least favorite kind of First-Person Camera Movie… the kind that knows there are things within the style that it cannot possibly communicate within the aesthetic so it has to break away and cheat it frequently. In spite of that, iMedium is actually really damn good. In fact, I say it’s the best first-person camera movie I’ve seen since [Rec], meaning that Spanish people are way better at this thing than Americans. It’s heartbreaking because I think it could get rid of both the app element of the plot and still keep its derangement, especially with director/editor Alfonso Garcia’s finger on the emotional beats, Jesus Velez’s ability to sell the amateur quality of the story without making audience’s have to squint to see what’s on-screen, and Jose Bermudez’s on-edge performance, none of which really demands that the movie be FPC. It could have stood proudly on its own without that camera phone crutch.

THE CLEANSING HOUR

The Cleansing Hour (dir. Daniel Leveck)
Playing Thursday 17 August 11:30 pm preceding Dead Shack

This is pretty funny. Not really bellylaughs funny, but from the moment at the end of its stone-faced opening montage that it actually establishes this supposed exorcism to be an internet hoax phenomenon by “Father” Lance (Sam Jaeger) and Drew (Neil Grayston) with the assistance of aspiring actress Heather (Heather Morris). All three central performances do an adequate job – Jaeger at selling Lance’s insincerity, Grayston at being his exasperated foil – to bringing enough levity to the material that the overly polished and labored production feels self-reflexive as a comment to the falseness of sensationalist videos, but it’s all on Morris at switching to grisly demon mode once it’s clear that something inside her is going off-script that re-establishes the stakes while The Cleansing Hour is clearly trying to parody this sort of exploitation. It’s not particularly intelligent parody nor laugh out loud, but it’s entertaining enough to breeze past its runtime on to a sharp final beat.

And there you are. The short film line-up of the Popcorn Frights Film Festival. Hope to see you there starting this Friday!

Dead Men Tell The Same Ol’ Tales

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I don’t think a single person in the world asked for another Pirates of the CaribbeanPirates of the Caribbean movie. Hell, I don’t think a single person asked for it back in 2012 when Rob Marshall’s sloppy Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides made good on Disney’s threat to continue past the original trilogy. Hell, I’m sure half of the people who received Pirates sequels when they asked for them in 2006 and 2007 kind of ended up with a regret that they existed to dilute and complicate the enjoyment of the original Curse of the Black Pearl, one of the most fun and surprising summer blockbusters of my lifetime. It would only make for Walt Disney Pictures and Johnny Depp to want to keep hanging by that successful thread during one of the most tumultuous periods of their respective careers (which Disney has since recovered from but I don’t think Depp’s ever will). And the honest truth is that much like On Stranger Tides has mostly faded from others’ minds, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales will do so as well and this is despite being a much better movie than the sequels that preceded it.

That’s not a high bar.

Anyway, the way Dead Men Tell No Tales gets to being that “best sequel in the franchise” is simple, they repeated the narrative steps of Curse of the Black Pearl. Like that’s it. They took every single narrative step that the one great Pirates of the Caribbean movie pulled and retread them all again. Though the way they retread those steps are inarguably weaker, for one re-establishing our ol’ pirate scalliwag “Captain” Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) once again abandoned by his crew (but without the messiness of mutiny and all) and having him recruited by a young man wishing to free somebody he loves from imprisonment amongst the pirates. That young man is Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) and he wants Jack’s help finding Poseidon’s Trident to free his father, previous hero Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) from the curse Jack actually put him under three years ago to save Will’s life – the curse that made Will the Captain of the accursed ghost ship The Flying Dutchman. Alongside them is a young scientifically minded woman Carina Smythe (Kaya Scodelario) who is also in search of Poseidon’s Trident and her father, evading pursuers accusing her of being a witch (which makes little sense but whatever) while Jack is evading the revenge of undead Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) after Jack gets rid of his compass.

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So basically Thwaites and Scodelario are playing the same roles Bloom and Keira Knightley (also returning as Will’s old love Elizabeth Turner) played in the original Pirates trilogy and while Scodelario is barely better at establishing agency than Knightley, Thwaites is far below Bloom. And Bloom’s no De Niro. It’s some very vanilla acting overall, only salvaged by Depp finding a lot more comfort in having Sparrow become a tricksy puck rather than the lead and Bardem’s spitting anger. Even Geoffrey Rush is done with this, in his mandated return as pirate rival to Sparrow, Admiral Hector Barbossa.

I’m not 100 on the logic of Salazar and his crew’s return, but that’s fine because that crew makes up the first time in a while where the frequently undead (because when does this franchise ever not have undead pirates?) actually play with the horror imagery, having them half present and fragmented and grisly but in blue paleness to their skin is sure enough to give children the creeps enough to pass as a Disney film, while Bardem knows how to turn that handicap on his character into an anchor for his acting, much like Bill Nighy before him as Davy Jones. And while it goes without saying that directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (of the fellow sea-faring picture Kon-Tiki) are not Gore Verbinski in their popcorn filmmaking ability, there’s a lot in this film to make for a pleasant enough diversion from the very labored script (I personally think Barbossa gets the worst of it with an element tacked on that feels absolutely unearned despite how long we’ve been acquainted with Rush in the character, but there’s also the possible contender in Royal Lieutenant Scarfield played by David Wenham, who seems so arbitrary and second-banana as a threat compared to Salazar). There’s their action sequences such as the wonderful rescue of Jack and Carina from execution early on, particularly in a very theme-park-ride esque shot involving a guillotine on Jack’s head that feels like a Looney Tunes moment. There’s the wiliness of a flashback in which Jack shows his sea skills that turned Captain Salazar in for dead. Rønning and Sandberg know their way around over-the-top physics in an action scene, save for a very underwhelming and forgettable CGI climax to remind us that this is of course a summer tentpole (in 2017… a disappointing summer to say the least).

There’s nothing about this that screams a necessary watch. Like I said, nobody asked for this movie to exist and I think the world would keep right on turning if it didn’t. But Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a return of the franchise to some kind of quality and however minute that amount may be, it has to count for something.

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