it chapter 2

I watched the hotly anticipated It Chapter 2 Saturday night for my friend Marge’s Birthday evening. She was excited about it so I felt more caught up in the hype this time. It C1&2, directed by Andy Muschietti, is definitely ‘event’ cinema with probably the biggest budget horror marketing campaign since the Paranormal Activity series. The viral campaign for the first film was notable for inspiring fans to dress as clowns and mildly menace people in the streets. As a Stephen King fan, I was curious! However, It Chapter 1 came hot on the heels of Stranger Things with a similar vibe and even casting. I’ve seen E.T. (Spielberg, 1982) and literally bought the t-shirt so after about three episodes of ST I was bored of seeing a less interesting approximation of 80s/90s culture. (Sorry to rain on everyone’s parade) The idea of seeing what seemed stylistically to be a rip off of a rip off didn’t really appeal but I did intend on giving It a chance eventually. I have the book waiting for me on my Stephen King shelf but I haven’t quite got round to reading that either so aside from having seen the 1990 Tim Curry miniseries I went into 2 cold. Luckily Chapter 2 is fairly easy to follow without seeing 1 thanks to several interwoven flashbacks…

It Chapter 1 is the story of a sewer-dwelling clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) that terrorizes the children of Derry, Maine in the summer of ’88. The clown preys on peoples fears. A group of childhood friends who self-style as The Losers Club take on the clown after Bill Denbourough’s brother Georgie is taken. They defeat Pennywise but all agree to return to Derry if the supernatural clown turns out to have survived. In Chapter 2, after a spate of shocking deaths, Mike (Isaiah Mustafa/Chosen Jacobs) who still lives in the town contacts the gang and asks them to fulfill their promise. Those who leave Derry forget the horrors, so on their return Bill, (James McAvoy/Jaeden Martell) Beverly, (Jessica Chastain/Sophia Lillis) Richie, (Bill Hader/Finn Wolfhard) Ben (Jay Ryan/Jeremy Ray Taylor) and Eddie (James Ransone/Jack Dylan Grazer) must face up to the events of the past that shaped them in order to prevent their future deaths.

Pennywise the clown is a physical representation of childhood trauma. Mike has discovered a Native American ritual that might kill Pennywise. As part of the process, the adults must each return to a location from their childhood and retrieve an item that holds both good and bad memories to use in the ritual. This confrontation with the repressed memories of their childhood traumas helps them to overcome the manifestation that haunts their adult lives and would eventually lead to their destruction SPOILER as it does for Stanley (Andy Bean/Wyatt Oleff) who kills himself rather than face his past.

I’ve got to say, despite my reservations, I very much enjoyed watching It Chapter 2. I found that the adult versions of the characters with their lined faces and their painfully realistic hangups were the antidote to the saccharin nostalgia-fest that has swept American pop culture in the wake of Trump and the ‘make America great again’ movement. This movie is mostly a downer, and that makes me happy because it’s much more real. (and, I would imagine, closer to Stephen King’s intentions) This film deals with child abuse, homophobia, and racism, it’s not just a fun jaunt through a nostalgic childhood adventure with some scary clown jumps added in. I have a lot of respect for that. It is not quite the earthshattering fear fest the marketing department has made it out to be but the horror and humor are well balanced, and the makeup and special effects are of superior quality.

It runs for the best part of 3 hours, something I am aware the film has received a lot of criticism for. From a narrative perspective, I would have appreciated even more time with the adult versions of the losers developing their characters. So in that respect, It could have benefited from being a four-part miniseries but if that were the case I fear the budget for effects and casting would have been greatly reduced. Ultimately a slightly laborious runtime is the pay-off we make for a thorough book to screen adaption.

The casting of this movie has been exceptional. The fandom had been working hard to suggest casting possibilities, (the same thing happens with Bond every 4 years) so I was a bit skeptical when I saw that only three ‘widely recognisable’ actors had been selected for the adult losers. The main problem I had with the original miniseries was confusion over who was who in relation their younger versions. Luckily the adult cast is spot on across the board with a near haunting similarity in both looks and mannerisms to their younger counterparts. You might recognise James Ransone as the Deputy who stole the show in Sinister 1 & 2, and Jay Ryan from his time as Delta Goodrem’s love interest in Neighbours. There is definitely some full-on acting going on which is something I always really appreciate in a mid-high budget horror as often people feel the genre is beneath them. The young cast is also very talented, bringing the Stand By Me (Reiner, 1986) vibes.

Ultimately, Bill Skarsgård rules as Pennywise doing his most compelling Winnie the Pooh impersonation. (Think about that the next time you watch It. For reference compare the videos at the bottom) Just as Tarantino was unfortunate to only make the second-best movie of the last two years to feature both a cult leader and that song by The Mamas & The Papas, I suspect that Joaquin Phoenix has only given the second-best clown performance of 2019. But shout out to Xavier Dolan because the opening scene where his character Adrian is subjected to a horrendous homophobic attack is possibly the most terrifying and moving/upsetting scene of the entire film. If you haven’t seen or heard of Dolan’s film Tom at the Farm (2013) now is the time to check it out!

Many people have noted that Skarsgård bears a resemblance to Steve Buscemi, I have also noticed that Dolan is comparable to a young Keifer Sutherland. I’m guessing that director Andy Muschietti had noticed this too as the losers club keep a poster for The Lost Boys (Shumacher, 1987) in their den and Sutherland is a key part of Stand By Me, a film Muschietti is clearly influenced by. It is thick with references to the world of King but if we were to go super meta for a moment; there is also a cameo from Peter Bogdanovich who once directed River Pheonix in The Thing Called Love (1993) and who also made a film called What’s up, Doc? (1972) (Doc is, of course, Danny’s nickname in The Shining)

James McAvoy scares a child

There were a couple of unintentional laugh-out-loud moments. In particular, the suddenly incredibly buff older Ben screaming in pain as letters are cut into his rippling six-pack but also Bill shouting at a small child in the street was a bit cringe. Richie’s melodramatic outburst after the climax felt a bit out of the blue too. His backstory seemed the most fascinating out of the group but there really wasn’t enough time to cover it properly. Mike Hanlon was probably the least developed of the seven, aside from meeting the Native Americans and doing some library research it was unclear what his life in Derry had been like for 27 years which was a shame.

I’m not in love with It but I would watch it again as I feel I could still get more out of the movie a second time around. There are plenty of nods to other King films like Carrie and even a fairly long cameo from the man himself. Although 2019 has seen particularly slim pickings for horrors that genuinely live up to their preview hype, I would say that currently, It Chapter 2 is my place holder for my best horror of the year. I am waiting on another King Adaption, Doctor Sleep, to make my final assessment. This has definitely been a resurgent year for legendary author Stephen King and, as Pet Semetary left me cold, It 2 is at least the best King adaption of the year so far. Muschietti has done a great job, its a lot of fun so go see It!

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Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark Brings the age appropriate chills

So I went to see Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark; the film adaption of the 80s’ series of short stories by the late American author Alvin Schwartz and directed by André Øvredal. (Troll Hunter) Scary Stories is a fun tween chiller/thriller in the vein of current popular teen TV shows like Stranger Things and Riverdale. I call it age-appropriate because the film depicts a large amount of striking and visual horror but without the over top physical violence of the current zeitgeist. The books are a little before my time (Point Horror is more my era) so I was surprised to read in the wiki that the stories are considered controversial among parents in the US for their content.

Set in small-town America during the Vietnam War, lonely teen Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) dreams of becoming a writer but can’t bear to leave her even lonelier dad on his own. Along with palls Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) she plays a Halloween prank on school bully Tommy (Austin Abrams) which results in meeting dashing, slightly older stranger Ramón. (Michael Garza) To impress Ramon Stella takes the gang to the town’s haunted house where captive daughter Sarah Bellows read stories to local children through the walls of her prison. Many of those children mysteriously vanished. Stella finds Sarah’s book of stories but new terrifying tales appear on the pages, one for each of her friends. Stella must work out how to stop Sarah from writing her stories before all her friends disappear.

Legendary director Guillermo del Toro has a story and producing credits for his roll in bringing the adaption to the screen. His influence can be seen in many of the monster scenes (the creature designs are truly brilliant) which have a trippy, surreal edge with Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven, 1984) and Silent Hill/PT vibes. Del Toro also worked on PT and the scene pictured with the endless corridors and red lighting reminded me why PT is still the greatest video game never made! I was also somewhat reminded of the often unfairly maligned Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (Nixey, 2010) for which del Toro wrote the screenplay. Although I would imagine that this movie is closer to what he had envisioned for that project.

The casting quality is very high and the teens are generally well written. Stella has a prominent, active role in her narrative but she misses out on most of the better lines so despite Zoe Margaret Colletti bringing a great performance the character is rarely anything other than serious. I don’t understand why the girl can’t be comic too! I do like Stella but I also get a bit concerned by the new smart but damaged tomboy female stereotype that is popping up everywhere. Women and girls are many things. (It’s so depressing to keep having to point that out)

On the flipside; the way the male teens are portrayed here is much fairer and more realistic than something like the new Halloween (David Gordon Green, 2018) movie where the poorly characterised women can only be views as strong in comparison to the follies of the young males who are generally shown as jerks and idiots. Auggie and Chuck are both brilliantly written and the actors bring a youthful fun and a freshness that is missed after SPOILER their characters disappear. The first two-thirds of the film are very good, but after what happens to Chuck (it was worth watching the film just for that) it becomes a race to wrap it all up.

Michael Garza is dreamy as the charismatic Ramón but unfortunately, his character is also not given as much depth. This may be due to his seemingly being older than Stella. The pair’s relationship becomes much more romantic in tone and is fantasised to an extent but the writers/director make the wise move of not having the couple kiss which would have been problematic in the age of #metoo. The film also has an interesting final message about victims needing to be heard and to have their stories told.

Scary Stories is set in a nostalgic past but is given a sociopolitical context with references to Vietnam, Nixon and undercurrents of ever-pervasive racism with the suspicions and profiling which Ramón experiences. (Shout out to Gil Bellows for his great turn as the police chief) The treatment of people of Mexican heritage also gives the film contemporary parallels. In my mind, this raises it slightly above other tween ‘nostalgia porn’ like Stranger Things. The temptation to look to the past in contemporary supernatural and fantasy-based horror likely stems from the difficulties of trying to place fantastical creatures or ghosts in a world of social media without being drawn sown the found-footage/webcam/phone footage route.

Overall, Scary Stories is definitely worth a watch, and if I was 15 again I would be obsessed. Look out for all these kids in the future because they’re great. Plus the slightly odd ending leaves the door open for a sequel.

By the by, this seems like the right moment in time for a company like The WB to make a TV series based on the Point Horror/Nightmare Hall books. Give the people what they want!

Midsommar

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

-William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Where to start… The above quote comes to mind when trying to accurately sum up both the premise of Ari Aster’s new ‘horror’ film Midsommar and my feelings about it. (I should briefly emphasize that I’m not suggesting that Ari Aster is an idiot) Anecdotally, things that happened during my showing: a woman screamed at her partner and stormed out, the whole auditorium laughed through the sex scene, when the credits rolled a guy stood up and shouted: “What the f**k!” (a comment met with general agreement) As we left I overheard a girl ask her boyfriend “Why did you take me to see that?”

Synopsis: Rudderless anthropology student Christian (Jack Reynor) wants to break up with his girlfriend Dani (Florence Pugh) but she suffers a family tragedy so instead he ends up inviting her to the Midsommar festival in Sweden. The trip has been arranged by Swedish friend Pelle so that Christian, along with classmates Josh and Mark, can get inspiration for their respective theses. The gang join in various ceremonies, observing the society from the inside, but are the members of this unique community as friendly as they initially seem?

The first third of Midsommar is a powerful film. We follow Dani closely as she tries to contact her bi-polar sister who has left an ominous email about ending it all and taking their parents with her. It is a very accurate portrayal of the terror and helplessness of a situation like that. We see her find out her family is dead and then follow her grief clouded attempts to reassimilate back into normal life. It’s close to the bone. I experienced a couple of losses in my family over the last few years. I recently had a friend tell me I had ruined their weekend because I hadn’t smiled enough, or been enthusiastic enough about the right things. I would show her the start of this movie if I thought it would help her understand. I was blown away, the first third of this film really wants you to know it is serious. The thing is if you are going to realistically show us a person experiencing deep trauma and possibly put audiences through reliving their own then, in my view, you really need to follow it through to some kind of payoff. I felt that the last two-thirds of the film betrayed the emotions it had elicited from me at the start.

Dani sees visions of her dead family a couple of times over the course of the festival but, by the end, it is hard to see the significance of the overwrought opening. I can understand that the community represents a possible new family and this impacts Dani’s desition making. Florence Pugh gives a powerful and authentic performance but despite this Midsommar is actually more Christian’s story.

My main issue with this film is that it is yet again another example of a 2019 so-called horror film that is so determined to be smart that it neglects to be scary. There is not a single ounce of fear in Midsommar. I don’t want to keep ramming this point into the ground but there is a big difference between gratuitous imagery and the creation of fear and suspense. There is a modern obsession with showing everything and leaving very little to the imagination. SPOILER If you are going to include photo-realistic shots of smashed in heads you had better have a damn good reason otherwise you’ve lost the audience. The difference between legitimately enjoying horror movies and watching beheading videos on Youtube is stylisation, context, subtext, and catharsis. I have full sympathy for the woman who jumped up and left after that scene at the cliff. Why desensitize the audience so early on? I prefer horrors to build to a crescendo like the Royal Albert Hall sequence in The Man Who Knew Too Much (Hitchcock, 1956) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CBjxGdgC1w

The film itself is very anthropological, I found out much more about the community of Midsommar than the characters in the film. Aster wants us to think about American culture as much as the odd Swedish villagers. Out of the guests/outsiders, the sarcastic Brits are quick to question the things they see and try to leave but at every point, the Americans go along with it and let the group sway them.

Both protagonists are weak-willed. Dani constantly acquiesces to her self-interested boyfriend’s decisions. He, in turn, is influenced by the opinions of his friends and is happy to steal ideas from his friends for his thesis rather than go out on a limb for his own thoughts and opinions. SPOILERS Despite becoming the may queen, going along with every bizarre thing at every point, and not really worrying that all her friends have disappeared Dani suddenly becomes suspicious of the orgasmic chants coming from the shed where Christian is impregnating a maiden. This was the point I suddenly realised I was watching The Hills. The lack of conviction on both sides culminates at the end when Dani would rather let her terrible boyfriend burn to death than have a conversation about breaking up.

There are some good points. The set/costume design is immaculate. The Swedish cast is brilliant as is Florence Pugh. The drug trip special effects are well done. I spotted a couple of Kubrick references; Dani’s blanket has the Shining carpet design but in a blue colour scheme.

Other low points in brief: Will Poulter, who I think is very talented but Murray loves to hate him, exits too soon. The film gets a lot less interesting without him. Ginger people are treated as freaks, apparently eating a ginger pube is the most disgusting thing in the world (Are we twelve?) Disabled people are apparently mad. SPOILER Everything that happens at the Midsommar festival is an interpretation of the writings in the holy book, the book is written by an oracle. The oracles are the product of inbreeding amongst the community. We see the disabled person who wrote the book but never get to hear what they have to say in their own voice. There is also what appears to be a reference to Lars Von Trier’s film Antichrist (2009) with a mural of a woman cutting herself with scissors. I find the obsession of some male directors with FGM even when it is self-inflicted to be creepy and misogynistic.

For all its anthropologic detail Midsommar is a hipster movie “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Things you can watch that are better than Midsommar: The Wicker Man, (Robin Hardy, 1973) any episode of The League of Gentlemen, (1999-2017) The Village, (M. Night Shyamalan) and The Ritual. (David, Bruckner, 2017) Better horrors featuring Will Poulter: Eden Lake. (James Watkins, 2008) Better films about grief: Casper (Brad Siberling, 1995) Did you enjoy Midsommar? Let me know why in the comments.

Stranger danger! The Strangers: Prey at night

Full disclosure: the sole reason I watched this film was to see what other work Lewis Pullman has done after my Bad Times at the El Royale review last week. My expectations for Strangers: Prey at Night (Johannes Roberts, 2018) was low, the only things I had vaguely heard was that some fans didn’t feel it was really a Strangers movie. The original Strangers (written and directed by Bryan Bertino who is also the co-writer of Prey at Night) was a powerful home invasion story whereas Prey at Night is definitely a slasher. Not only that but it wants to be an 80s slasher. I have no problem with this as the slasher sub-genre is my horror sweet spot, I enjoy the catharsis.

Plot: Daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison) is a troubled teen rebel. Her parents Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and Mike (Martin Henderson of Shortland Street fame) are moving the family from suburbia to their uncle’s secluded trailer park to be closer to and save money for Kinsey’s new school in the hopes it will turn her life around. Older brother Luke (Lewis Pullman) is apparently unfazed by this because he is due to leave for college soon. Unluckily the strangers; ‘Dollface,’ ‘Pinup,’ and ‘Man in the Mask’ are roaming the park looking for victims to terrorise.

Watching with incredulity I found the first half to be bare despite admiral attempts to build backstory and illustrate the various family dynamics. Kinsey feels she is the black sheep of the family, unable to connect with her parents on the same level as her adored brother. Kinsey’s rebellion seems confined to black eyeliner, smoking, and wearing a Ramones t-shirt. It’s cliche but, as an emo at heart, I can see that it also contains a grain of truth. The family’s problems seem insurmountable until the life-threatening events put everything into perspective. Suddenly family is the most precious thing they have to cling to which is what gives Prey at Night its heart.

There is a lot of absurdity in this film; no one looks related, I couldn’t quite buy Pullman and Madison as young teens, all the mobile phones get smashed, and SPOILER the mother’s death may be moving and interestingly shot but my God there was so much time for Kinsey to rescue her. I should be telling you that all this makes it a bad film but its actually kind of awesome. When I got to the climactic second half I found that all those seemingly cheesy cliches had been very subtly manipulating me to a point where I was mesmerised by this compelling story of two siblings fighting for each other.

The pool scene where Luke fights ‘Pinup’ and ‘Man in the Mask’ to the sound of Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart is up there with some of the all-time greatest slasher sequences. The staging is brilliant, the camera work is superb the neon lights reflecting on the water are ace and there is not a single second where Lewis Pullman is not acting on a super high level. What interested me was that the camera did not shy away from the horror at any point. These moments are unsettling and uncomfortably challenging but somehow avoid the sleezey voyeurism of stuff like ‘torture porn.’ Maybe because the camera always has sympathy for its subject. I was so impressed that I’ve seen this segment about five times already.

There is quite a lot of slasher horror references in here. Prey at Night is not the first to use Total Eclipse of the Heart in a thrilling horror set piece, Urban Legend (Blanks, 1998) used it for their opening scene 20 years ago. The score feels like a riff on Assult on Precinct 13. (Carpenter, 1976) There is the classic ‘I’m trying to escape in cop car but where are the keys’ scene which, just by the way ‘man in mask’ dangles the keys, feels like a Scream (Craven, 1996) reference to me. There is also a tacked on second ending that I could have done without which is basically a Texas Chainsaw (Hooper, 1974) homage.

Those may be 90s/70s references but what Prey at Night really wants to be, from the titles and pop music through to the setting, is a Friday the 13th movie. The trailer park could easily be Camp Crystal Lake. (with the pool substituting for the lake) ‘Man in the Mask’ gets an axe and goes full sack-head Jason to the point of seeming invincibility.  Stop me if I’m reading too much into this but the main ending shared definite parallels with the F13 game. SPOILERS Kinsey painfully hobbles towards the ‘bridge exit’ which looks a lot like the exit in the Crystal Lake/Jarvis house maps whilst under constant threat of being mown down by a car. (is the car trolling her?) I think Johannes Roberts is making a pretty good pitch for directing the game movie adaption if and when the F13 rights ever leave legal wrangling hell.

There are no deeper revelations about who the strangers are and why they do what they do which is fine. The Strangers: Prey at Night is fun, creepy, and uncynical. I’m really happy with it and I’d recommend it.

Child’s Play

The Child’s Play remake from director Lars Klevberg has been perfectly timed to release alongside Toy Story 4. Both child protagonists are called Andy but in Child’s Play, it is the boy who represents the ‘forgotten toy’ of a disinterested mother.

I suppose I should start by explaining that the Child’s Play series has very different connotations for audiences in the U.K. as for a time in the ’90s Child’s Play 3 (Bender, 1991) was connected, probably unfairly, to one of the worst child murder cases in recent memory; the killing of James Bulger. I always felt like I should be able to get into the series but at the back of my mind was the notion that these were unsavory films. (with the exceptions of Bride and Seed of Chucky which are more comedy based and, from what I can remember, are centered around adults)

I was keen to see the new remake as this seemed as good an opportunity as any for a new generation of filmmakers to take the possessed killer doll concept in a new direction. Despite my reservations, I kept an open mind throughout. Sadly I would describe Child’s Play as being 85% stupid, 10% sinister, (that’s sinister as in morally ambiguous) and 5% passable. Most irritatingly I wouldn’t even deem it to be a horror. At no point did I feel scared.

Brief synopsis: ‘Buddi’ dolls now contain AI to connect them with other Kaslan products including smartphones. Chucky (Mark Hamill) starts life in a Korean factory where his programmer removes all his safeguards and commits suicide. In America, Chucky is returned as faulty goods. Instead of sending him back for refurbishment, tech store employee Karen Barclay (Aubrey Plaza) gives the broken doll to her lonely son Andy. (Played by the clearly very talented Gabriel Bateman) Chucky tries to assimilate with Andy and the other neigbourhood kids but does not receive the correct socialisation. Confused by complex emotions, Chucky begins to kill off those who upset his ‘buddy.’ Andy tries to rid himself of Chucky but the murderous doll has other ideas.

It’s a strange little plot! Chucky is not possessed by the soul of a dead convict like he is in the 1988 original. Chucky is instead an AI version of a parentless child (Having not received the positive programming from his ‘father’ at the factory) adopted by the Barclay family. Just as a child learns and develops by watching others Chucky must learn from Andy and his new friends. Adults are rarely around. Poor Chucky seems innocent, wants to help Andy and play with him but he does not understand social cues. For instance, he knows he needs to remind Andy to take his science book to school but he does not understand what a science book is, handing him various random objects. He wants to give Andy a present but again does not understand what a present might be, giving Andy a stick with a bow on it. Most importantly Chucky has not yet learned that other beings feel pain. When Andy uses Chucky to make friends with the other kids in his building the gang realises they can manipulate Chucky. They teach him rude words, inappropriately expose him to violent films and teach him to scare Andy’s mom’s boyfriend. What Chucky does learn is that his bad behavior seemingly makes Andy happy. As Chucky goes increasingly off the rails Andy starts locking him in a closet. I felt sorry for Chucky.

Things are just as bad for Andy. He is 13 but looks more like 10. His mother is never physically abusive but does come across as neglectful and indifferent. She openly admits her son to be a prom night mistake. She works hard at the store to keep a roof over his head and upgrade his hearing aid but she pumps all her spare time into her latest boyfriend; a man who is just as emotionally unavailable as she is. Andy seems to spend most of the film with tears streaming down his face but the most he is afforded from his mother is an ironic smile. Andy is bringing himself up alone as much as Chucky is and it is amazing that he is not as damaged as Chucky becomes. I feel that the overly sympathetic portrayal of the mother gives the treatment of the kids in the film a thin veil of respectability that is undeserved.

What I found disturbing was not the horror (which was in pitifully short supply) but the way the movie positioned itself as a kids family adventure similar to E.T. (Spielberg, 1982) and The Goonies, (Donner, 1985) or even something like Gremlins (Dante, 1984) but without the charm. This is why I describe the film as sinister; I don’t understand western societies current obsession with seeing young children as the subject of extream threat and pain. (IT, Stranger Things, etc) It’s not that I don’t think children should be used in the horror genre, films like US (Peele, 2019) or The Babadook (Kent, 2014) are all good modern examples of how children can be used sensitively and effectively in horror. Who is this film for? Why is this not a horror movie for adults? Where are all the 18/NC-17 horrors?

There was a small amount of comedy. The filmmakers might have gotten away with more if they had gone further down the satire route. Mark Hamill does a commendable job with Chucky’s voice work, it is funny and at times moving. All the best scenes involve Detective Mike’s (Brian Tyree Henry) mother Doreen (Carlease Burke) is the only adult bringing any humanity to the proceedings. SPOILER This makes it all the more tragic/stupid when Doreen is killed in a hilariously over the top self-driving car crash. I had to stop myself laughing when Mike has to identify his own mother’s body. The pair are the only two likable adults in the movie, they are the only example of a fully functioning mother/son relationship but he reacts to her death like his dinner is cold.

Child’s Play does vaguely try to comment on the possibilities technology has to make our lives better. Andy has a hearing aid, a technology that improves the lives of millions, and Doreen was excited that the self-driving car app would improve her independence until she met her untimely end. Some use is made of Chucky’s ability to integrate with other devices like when he turns up the thermostat on the pervert in the basement but this aspect of the plot is mostly underused.

When I saw the gaunt, pale, lonely kids in this movie and their interactions with each other, technology and adults/wider society I did not feel like this was a futuristic nightmare. Child’s Play is almost a social commentary on how 29 years ago two 10-year-old boys could come to decide to lead an innocent 3-year-old away to his death. Tech maybe evolving but society is not and it’s a tragedy. This is just a depressing little film whose redeeming features are very hard to see. Disagree? Tell me why in the comments.

Bad Times at the El Royale

2018s Bad Times at the El Royale was Drew Goddard’s directorial follow-up to cult 2-way mirror horror The Cabin in The Woods. (2011) Although Royale might technically be classified as a thriller I would still dare to describe it as the best horror of last year particularly because it may well turn out to be a prequel to Cabin as I will discuss.

Back in the way-way back I reviewed Cabin in the Woods giving it a very polite takedown. Despite its receiving instant pop culture status my main points of criticism were: a lack of characterisation, a lack of ‘out and out’ horror/tension, and general confusion of story due to multiple ideas bouncing around excitedly. However, I could see that Goddard was highly talented and, just as that one sentence is better than my whole 2011 review, I am very happy to say that Royale blows Cabin out of the woods (Boom boom) more than answering my criticism of his previous work on every single point. Royale is an extremely tense thriller with more than one exceptional performance from a damn fine ensemble cast.

First time at the El Royale?

-Laramie Seymour Sullivan

Synopsis: In the past, a bank robbery took place, the pair of thieves split up agreeing to meet at a motel; the El Royale. Thief #1 painstakingly hides the stash under the floorboards. Thief #2 turns up, blows thief #1 away, tears the room apart but does not find the cash. Flash forward to the 1960s and several strangers arrive at the now rundown motel seemingly by chance; a priest, (Jeff Bridges) a singer, (Cynthia Erivo) a businessman, (Jon Hamm) and a hippie. (Dakota Johnson) Throw in a kidnapped girl, (Cailee Spaeny) a drug-addled bellboy, (Lewis Pullman, yes Bill Pullman’s son!) and a cult leader (Chris Hemsworth) and you get a heady combination. Are they here for the money or for their own sinister reasons? Cue nailbiting thriller that absolutely wants to be a horror but kindly restrains itself.

The above only covers about 10mins of the plot but I strongly advocate going into this film fresh with as little info as possible for the full experience. Not only is this the type of ‘Hollywood movie’ audiences want to watch (highly entertaining while still requiring more than one lonely brain cell to flap around) but I honestly think that this is the kind of movie they will be teaching about in film schools 20 years from now. Yes, Drew Goddard could be the Christopher Nolan of his generation.

Warmth and sunshine to the west, or hope and opportunity to the east. Which would you prefer?

-Miles Miller

There are some references to Psycho (1960, Hitchcock) with John Hamm’s character ark plus the motel setting and the continuous sense of impending doom. It feels as if the hand of fate is directing all the key players. The hotel sits across state lines with the rooms and lobby divided between California and Nevada. Those on the Nevada side can legally gamble. Each person is metaphorically rolling the dice between the possible outcomes to their decisions during their stay.

It is also clear that Goddard was heavily influenced by William Friedkin’s back catalog, (The Exorcist, Killer Joe, etc) but particularly by To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) A brilliant and disturbing picture in case you haven’t seen it. In Royale, the 2way mirrors create an ongoing sense of unease. No one is safe and anything could happen at any moment, which is one of the reasons I see this as nigh-on horror. The mix of fate, coincidence, irony, and humor are also very Cohen brothers-esque. Royale is at times absurd and at times at laugh out loud hilarious. There is nothing wrong with a healthy dose of absurdity if it is done well and Royale is class.

The things I have seen in this hotel

– Miles Miller

Bridges and relative newcomer Erivo give what I would describe as Oscar-worthy performances. Erivo’s American accent is flawless as is her singing which, along with the popular music soundtrack, brings a new dimension to the work. (The music choices actually relate to the plot which makes a welcome change these days) Hamm and Pullman are riveting and Hemsworth does his best Brad Pitt. It is only Dakota Johnson who doesn’t seem to ‘show up’ or it might just be that she fades into the background where everybody else is so spectacular.

Just harking back to my Cabin review for a moment; what didn’t fully work in my eyes with the characterisation of lead geek Marty 100% works with Miles Miller. (Lewis Pullman) Miller represents the ultimate ‘Call of Duty nerd done good’ but he comes across as a real person fully fleshed out with shades of grey which is so important. When it comes to characterisation, performance, and the direction of actors I cannot praise this film enough.

I don’t want to sugar coat Royale; there was still a profusion of ideas that needed to be followed through on like: Who runs the hotel? Why don’t we see that person/s? Why wasn’t the money taken years ago? Regardless I have faith that all these questions will be answered at some point by a trilogy tie-in movie. The obsession with two-way mirrors and the hints at conspiracy and good and evil make me think this has got to be a prequel. A quick google search shows me that I am not the only audience member to suspect that Royale is part of a bigger picture. There is a whole subreddit dedicated to this. There is so much more to this theory that I want to explore but I don’t want to put spoiler into this review so maybe I will do a spoiler-filled fan theory article at a later date. I cannot emphasize my admiration for this film enough and I can’t wait to see where this goes next.

As a side point; even though ‘cigarette smoking man’ didn’t smoke Laramie’s I am also kinda wondering if Jon Hamm’s name being Laramie is a reference to the X-files. Although, it could just as well be a ref to The Simpsons.

On the topic of unanswered questions, my mates The Video Nasty Boys second podcast in their new horror pod series earnestly argues the importance of films that don’t give all the answers, challenging audiences and keeping them guessing. Follow the link to listen on Spotify.

Oculus

Oculus (2013, Mike Flanagan) is based around an interesting premise; that a mirror is haunted by an evil spirit that slowly possesses its viewer. In horror movies, mirrors can be truly terrifying as anyone who has ever watched Dead of Night (Cavalcanti/Crichton/Dearden/Hamer, 1945) or Candyman (1992, Bernard Rose) will know.

The film focuses on the experiences of siblings Kaylie (Karren Gillan) and Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) whos parents became possessed by the mirror 11 years previous. The mirror drove them mad until the father killed the mother and then himself but it was ultimately son Tim who went to a Psychiatric prison accused of the ‘crimes.’ Tim is released having undergone therapy that dispelled his belief in the supernatural aspects of his parent’s death. In the meantime, Kaylie has become obsessed with the supernatural power of the mirror and set up a series of cameras around the mirror to prove that her brother was innocent before intending to destroy it.

The timeline of Oculus is split between the past and present and to add another level of confusion the mirror has the power to make people believe they are carrying out one action (like phoning the police) when really another is happening (wondering around the house looking creepy) The idea that both siblings remember their childhoods differently is a clever hook but what should be a really smart exciting plot is confused by a lack of distinction between the real and imagined. The audience does need some general idea of what is and isn’t real in order to feel fear or empathy for the characters as events unfold. For example, in A Nightmare on Elm Street, (Craven, 1984) there is a distinct visual stylistic difference between the ‘real world’ and the ‘dream world.’ Of course, there is some slippage between the two used to fool us but knowing when characters are in danger increases the fear and tension. When anything could be fake I find that I start to lose interest as I did while watching Oculus.

Other things that interfered with the mood were the excessive exposition and build up to scenes for little or no payoff. I think Oculus could have made for a neat little thriller had the ending been a bit better but as a horror movie, it does not work. The ending was rushed and in my mind made the whole film pointless. This is a big shame because, as I mentioned, there were some excitingly original plot concepts that could have been great.

The child actors (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) portraying past events were used very well. Special shoutout to Rory Cochrane who stole the show and reminds me of an American Danny Dyer. The remainder of the cast also makes a good effort although Kaylie’s boyfriend seemed mightily superfluous. My notes say this is “no Jumanji” which is ironic considering that Karen Gillan was subsequently cast in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (Jake Kasdan, 2017) probably in part on the basis of this role. I was not very impressed by this film but a few of my work colleagues loved it so it may just be one of those marmite movies.

On a separate note, two of my friends Matt and Dan have recently launched their own horror podcast entitled Dead is Better under the banner of Wrap Party. Theirs is a nice, chill, conversationalist podcast filled with upcoming horror news, reviews and other musings. If you are a horror aficionado but like me, you find it hard to keep up with all the greenlight news then this one is for you. Wrap party podcasts are available on loads of different platforms but I have been listening for free on Spotify. I have definitely mentioned at least one of these guys in my previous review but I always use pseudonyms so you will have to guess who’s who.

Blair Witch

Hello, ‘Throwback Thursdays’ lovers. Back in 2016 director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett gave us a sequel to 1999’s runaway hit The Blair Witch Project. (Myrick/Sanchez, USA) The duo had previously gifted us with instant cult classics The Guest (2014, USA/UK) and You’re Next, (2011) one of the best horror movies of the decade. These guys really know how to bring together an original script and a bold visual style to produce movies with a fresh outlook, that push the genre forward. Those were the main factor that pushed me to watch another Blair Witch sequel whilst still largely suffering from found footage fatigue. (2015’s The Gallows (Cluff/Lofing) was a particular low point)

Blair Witch loosely tries to keep up with the pretense that we are, once again, watching documentary footage discovered in the Black Hills, near Burkittsville, Maryland. Lisa (Callie Hernandez) is filming a documentary project about her friend James, (James Allen McCune) and his attempts to discover what happened to his sister, Heather, who disappeared with her camera crew whilst also filming a documentary about the Blair Witch. James shows Lisa the footage recovered from the area where Heather disappeared which shows her entering a house in the woods and finding her friend Mike stood in the corner of a room. (the events of the original movie) They decide to make a trip to the woods to look for the house on the video. James has made contact with a local couple, Lane, (Wes Robinson) and Talia, (Valorie Curry) who are willing to show him the location where the DV tapes were found. James’s best friend Peter (Brandon Scott) and Peter’s girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid) go with them to help film using special earpiece camera’s and a phone-controlled drone camera. Things start to go awry when weirdos Lane and Talia insist on accompanying the gang on their camping trip and doing their own filming. Strange things start happening in the woods after dark that requires everyone to start running around with torches.

Blair Witch is not a bad attempt at a sequel, it takes classic elements from the original and updates them, as well as expanding on the lore from the original and taking it in an interesting direction. Wingard chose to tell the story through found footage again, which is in keeping with the series but put a lot of constraints on developing the characters. Two-thirds of the movie takes place in the woods and about a third in the Blair Witch house. In my opinion, they could have spent even more time at the house as it really was the most interesting thing about the original.

We get to hear a bit more about the old town of Blair and the superstition surrounding the Witch, including that she would take two children and make one stand in the corner of the room and listen while she killed the other. In The Blair Witch Project, the documentary crew walks for hours but always ends up back in the same spot. The new Blair Witch expands on this, establishing a time warp where after a certain point the sun ceases to come up. Lane and Talia go off on their own after the others discover that they faked some of the stick figures, but return hours later claiming that they have been lost for three days. This is a nice addition which attempts to add a new element of fear to the story. (the only thing that was scary for cinema audiences about the original, aside from the ending, was the belief that it was something that had really happened. Wingard and Barrett were clearly aware that they would have to give more to savvy modern audiences) The use of a drone, a device I have not seen used in a horror before, made for an intriguing prospect but ultimately came to nothing.

There is a definite lack of characterisation; we don’t find out much about Lisa though it is implied that she is the main protagonist as it is her documentary they are filming or about her relationship with James. Actress Callie Hernandez channels Marilyn Burns in her attempts to escape the witch’s house but her character Lisa’s ending is a contradiction. Lisa is smart enough to work out how the curse works but stupid enough to fall for the witch’s tricks.

Ashley and Peter’s apparent deaths are unsatisfying, it is not clear what happens to either of them. Lane becoming stuck in the time warp is interesting but flawed. On the other hand, Talia’s voodoo doll death is very cool and spooky however the dark lighting makes it hard to see what is going on.

All in all, I would say that this was a good sequel by Blair Witch/found footage standards but not quite up to what I perceive to be Adam Wingard’s own high standards. It was somewhat scary and more importantly, it opened the universe of the film up so that it could go in a new direction if it wanted to. If Blair Witch was, in fact, teeing up a crossover between the original cast and the new cast via the time slip then that would be amazing! Worth a watch, and much better than Gallows. Have I missed something? Head down to the comments and let me know.

The Witch: An America ill at ease with itself

Murmurs of Discontent in the Multiplex

The first I heard of The Witch (2015, Robert Eggers) and what drew me to watch it was the many news stories fresh from the US about the film’s reception. The word on the street was that mainstream American audiences hated the movie. Call it a sense of good old-fashioned British self-superiority, but this immediately gave me the impression that the opposite was probably true. After subjecting myself and my friends to a number of truly dire horror films over the past few years (Gallows, Unfriended etc) that the general public seemed to think were great, I had concluded that The Witch was probably just another misunderstood, slow burn, think for yourself type of film.

The reason for all the fuss was a feeling that the film had been misleadingly marketed as a jump scare movie. This is an argument I don’t particularly subscribe to because I don’t see a necessity for a distinction: either it’s a horror movie and marketed as such, or it’s not, and The Witch most definitely is a horror movie. I had no problem with the trailer and found it accurate, as horror trailers go. (horror can be a bit like comedy, with all the funny bits in the trailer) Similarly, having seen the movie, I also don’t fully agree with the interpretation of critics that the popularity of the jump scare movie has left audiences stupified and spoonfed, unable to understand a more traditional depiction of the supernatural. (That’s despite my initial assumptions as outlined in my opening paragraph) I would suggest that there are a couple of other factors at play here and that The Witch has predominantly done its job by truly tapping into the American psyche and leaving everyone a little disgruntled as I will go on to discuss.

A New-England Folktale

The Witch is a story of an immigrant family in America who are expelled from their religious community because of an undisclosed sin committed by their father. The father; William (Ralph Ineson) and mother; Katherine (Kate Dickie) are banished to an isolated farm in the woods with their two sons, two daughters and newborn baby where things quickly start to get weird. The newborn has not yet been baptised and is viewed by the Puritan family to be in grave danger from the devil and or witches. The baby is in fact snatched whilst in the care of their daughter and the family members start to turn against each other unsure as to whether the assailant is someone from the outside or the inside. To throw another spanner in the works the family’s goat Black Philip seems to be the devil incarnate. The parents are both secretive and strict but also ineffective so most of the film is seen from the perspective of the oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Tayor-Joy) and oldest son Caleb. (Harvey Scrimshaw) Thomasin is repeatedly accused by her younger siblings of being a witch herself and the story keeps us guessing on this point throughout.

Frontier America to the modern day

Films that deal with this period in American history reflect the unease ‘white America’ feels when it holds a mirror to itself. The amazing British cast speaks with thick Northen English accents reminding us all that the majority of Americans (or those who see themselves as the majority) are in fact descended from immigrants themselves.

Writer/director Robert Eggers has created an allegorical critique of the modern American political climate through historical comparison. The family represents America; isolationist, with a zealous attitude to religion and apparently run by hypocrites.

Thomasin is coming of age and experiencing a biological awakening which is unwelcomed by her religious parents. Her body is under their control. But read between the lines (expelled for a sin of the father, the baby could not be baptised, the mother suspicions of an incestuous relationship) and it is likely that the baby was a result of ongoing sexual abuse of Thomasin on the part of her father. The onerous is placed on Thomasin and her changing body. The family must live under the hypocritical reign of their father as if the baby was just another sibling. This would explain why Thomasin has a fairly ambivalent attitude towards her baby sister from the start.

Separated from their community William, Kathrine and their family must establish their own religious values and create their own moral code. The eponymous Witch is a manifestation of this existential crisis, the ‘other’ that we must all fear and not become. Thomasin with her burgeoning woman’s body is seen as most at risk of being or becoming a witch. This terror in the American psyche of women’s bodies and their sexuality that prompts the state (represented in the film by William and Kathrine) to step in and control it can be seen in American today with more and more states introducing harsh abortion laws that effectively put women’s bodies under state control.

There are a couple of references to The Shining; (1981, Stanley Kubrick) there are the creepy twins, and at one point Caleb finds a cabin in the woods with a sexy lady who gives him a kiss only to be revealed as a hag. Easy mistake.

Robert Eggers direction is unsettlingly ambivalent. As discussed, the subtext is rich and the performances he nurtured are impeccable. I was willing the film on all the way; as a horror, it was genuinely atmospheric and scary, bearing comparisons to The Exorcist (1973, William Friedkin) in its treatment of the devil. But, as is often the case, I felt let down by the ending. SPOILERS! Of course, the witches coven revealed at the end has to be naked, dancing around and using the babies remains to fly about… Are you saying women’s emancipation comes at the expense of dead babies? I found this final cliched representation of the witch/female sexuality to be a bit of a cop-out for a film seemingly built on being a little bit smarter and different than the rest. Worth watching regardless.

Annabelle

Here’s a short and sweet retro Thursday’s review of Annabelle (2014, John R. Leonetti) as a third film about the haunted doll; Annabelle Comes Home (Gary Dauberman) is slated for release this June.

Annabelle, a doll possessed by the spirit of an unhinged cult member, first appeared in 2013’s The Conjuring (James Wan) during a backstory flashback about one of Ed and Loraine Warren’s previous cases. This ‘story within a story’ was so scary and mysterious that it successful spawned the Annabelle standalone film set in the ’60s which can be seen as a very loose prequel to The Conjuring.

Unfortunately, I found Annabelle to be a bit of a snore fest. The most successful horror sequence is the opening where pregnant Mia and husband John interrupt their neighbours being murdered by cult members during a home invasion only to become the new targets. The couple is luckily saved by the police but a female cult member (the ‘real’ Annabelle) kills herself in front of a doll in the unborn baby’s nursery. This sequence is genuinely unsettling but, for the most part, this is where the fear ends for another 40 odd mins.

The film then focuses on Mia’s terror as she and her newborn baby daughter are harassed by a demonic presence. A priest and a psychic both try to help but only a human sacrifice will appease the daemon and save the baby.

Compared to the Annabelle sequence from The Conjuring, the feature-length Annabelle movie is a big disappointment. There are pacing issues; a lot of time is spent building scenes up with no payoffs and there are too many loose ends. Slow burning films can really work (Stoker for example) but the quality of acting and cinematography needed to pull it off is much higher. Sadly the two leads are not able to successfully carry the film. Mia (Annabelle Wallis) is too meek, and John (Ward Horton) is too cheerful. Father Perez (Tony Amendola) and psychic friend Evelyn (Alfre Woodard) are very good but underdeveloped and Evelyn’s SPOILER final demise is incredibly cliched.

There is a level of threat while Mia is pregnant that is lost as soon as the baby is born. I am guessing that the name Mia is a nod to Mia Farrow’s turn as a pregnant New York socialite being gaslighted by her elderly neighbours in Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Roman Polanski) but Mia’s torment in Annabelle is mostly just irritating trope.

The only other successful sequence is when Mia is being chased by the daemon through the basement of her apartment block to the elevator. The lighting and effects take on a surreal quality akin to the Silent Hill (1999, Konami) games or J horror. The sequence has a lot of redeeming qualities so I am confused as to why the entire film didn’t employ the same aesthetic. Maybe because cinematographer turned director John R. Leonetti felt bound by the true story element?

One of the nice things about the Insidious/Conjuring films is that they are successfully terrifying but also tongue in cheek and self-aware. Annabelle lends itself to this as I would say that the concept of haunted dolls, in general, lends itself to humor but the film takes its self to seriously and is very beige.

I feel that Annabelle would have been more successful as a story (I am aware that it was very financially successful) had it been written by The Conjuring’s Chad and Carey Hayes and carried over some of the same sentiments. Annabelle writer Gary Dauberman has also written and directed the new Annabelle Comes Home, set to once again featuer Ed and Loraine Warren. In between, he wrote the very successful IT films so it will be interesting to see how the third film pans out.