The Babadook

Oh boy, what an absolutely terrifying movie. This one truly rattled me. It’s incredible filmmaking that can eek unease, dread, and terror out of even the most mundane moments.

The film can be described in a number of ways all of which would be technically accurate. Amelia, played by Essie Davis, is a single mother trying to get a good nights sleep despite her unruly son. Or… Amelia is a woman haunted by the death of her husband and that trauma manifests in the form of a monster from a story book. Or… Amelia and her son are traumatized by a malicious demon in fancy dress clothes. Or… An Australian filmmaker tortures the audience with a truly scary film for an hour and a half. All fo these are equally accurate.

Amelia and her son Samuel are struggling. Amelia can’t sleep. She also can’t embrace her son fully. Her husband died on the way to the hospital while she was in labor. This trauma haunts her to this day and causes a chasm between her and her son. Meanwhile, Samuel has a kind of arrested development. He believes in monsters and crafts makeshift weapons to protect his mom from the monsters he believes are at their door. One night before bed, Samuel takes a book off the shelf. It’s a book Amelia has never seen before. It’s called Mister Babadook. It turns out to be horrifying. Samuel comes to believe that Mister Babadook is coming to get them. As time passes, Amelia begins to believe it too.

The filmmaking here is unbelievable. It borrows a page from The Exorcist in that it uses editing and sound design in an almost violent way. Smash cuts to loud settings are incorporated throughout the first half to create jolts that never let the audience relax. Quick cuts to odd camera angles keeps the audience on edge and off balance. Rapid editing that builds to a static shot gets the heart rate up then abandons us in a hard long shot. It’s all brilliant work. One of the most well executed segments takes place at a park. Amelia is talking to her sister while Samuel plays on the swings. Samuel shouts about climbing higher. Amelia is distracted by her conversation. The film cuts between the conversation and Samuel climbing higher as the conversation becomes more intense and Samuel gets higher, the editing becomes more rapid. Faster and faster cuts that culminate in a wide shot of Samuel on the top of the swings. Silence. Smash cut to Samuel screaming in the backseat of the car. This rapid editing, combined with the building conversation, then the silence, then the smash cut to the screaming child incites fear and confusion. What happened between the swings and the car? We don’t know, but we’re uncomfortable with the implications. It’s not an inherently scary scene, but through a smart director and a skilled editor, it becomes deeply unsettling.

The design of The Babadook is instantly iconic. It is a dark shadowy figure that has long knife-life fingers an overcoat and a top hat. It is horrifying in the best way possible. The book from which The Babadook springs is vividly realized. It is scary to look at all on its own. Beautiful work. You just have to see it to fully appreciate it. Amelia’s house is perfectly created. It has a gray and black color palette that feels realistic for the most part, until the lights go out and the shadows get longer and those colors take on a heightened aesthetic. It is scary and ominous without having to try.

Essie Davis as Amelia and Noah Wiseman as Samuel are an incredible pair. Samuel is a very weird boy, but his oddities clearly come from a challenging upbringing. Wiseman manages to convey a lot and create a vividly realized character. Essie Davis should’ve been nominated for an Oscar for this. She explodes off the screen whether she is lost in an exhausted daze or berated her child like a possessed monster. It’s a great performance. She runs an emotional marathon in this movie, and definitely comes out the winner.

Now, is The Babadook real, or is it just a figment of Amelia’s beleaguered and traumatized mind? Well, the film doesn’t offer an easy answer to that question. It is shot from Amelia’s perspective. We see the world the way she does as such we are stuck with an extremely unreliable narrator. This is actually a brilliant twist on the genre. Early on only Samuel can see The Babadook. Amelia can’t see it, and doesn’t believe him. Usually, these movies followed the POV of the one who can see the monsters and the nonbelievers are relegated to background parts. This film gives us this perspective we don’t usually get. As the movie progresses and Amelia goes longer without sleep, her perspective begins slipping. So, is The Babadook real? I don’t honestly think it matters. It is real to her. She experiences something real to her. It could just be the manifestation of her trauma. It could be c oping mechanism her brain has crafted to deal with her resentment toward her son. It could be a demon that has sacked their lives. What matters is that Amelia can’t bear to touch her son at the start of the film and holds him loving at the end. The facts of the case are less important than the story being told. Also that ambiguity really helps the film stick to the walls of your brain like peanut butter on the roof of your mouth. It stays with you.

If you like your horror, intellectual, abstract, and challenging, then this is the movie for you. If you like your horror intense and relentless, this is also the movie for you. If you like easy answers or are looking for an easy movie to watch this movie is not going to go well for you. that’s not a criticism. Sometimes I need an easy to watch movie with a few jump scares and a neat conclusion. This is the opposite if that.

I was blown away by this movie. It is challenging, and vividly realized. Beautifully shot, intensely edited, and well acted, this movie deserves its place among the best horror movies of all time. It’s scary and effective as a drama. Check it out this Halloween. It’s awesome.

My cup of tea for sure. A

Black Christmas (all three versions)

Black Christmas is a 1974 classic slasher film that has been remade twice. These three movies could not be more different. They share a location and a title, and that’s about it. We’re going to compare all three in this old vs new vs… newer.

We’ll take them each one at a time then do a thorough comparison followed by a deep dive into spoiler territory.

The original Black Christmas was released in 1974 and was directed by Bob Clark. Bob Clark has an extremely eclectic filmography, but he’s probably best known for directing A Christmas Story. Yes, the movie with the BB gun that plays for 24 hours every year. The man who made that nice little Christmas movie also made this long walk into murder, suspicion, and terror. The story follows a sorority during the last days before Christmas break. They keep receiving obscene phone calls from an unknown caller. Meanwhile, Jess, played by Olivia Hussey, is having problems with her boyfriend Peter, played by Keir Dullea. Back at the sorority house the sisters are getting killed off one at a time by an unseen assailant.

The camera takes on the perspective of the assailant. This point of view shot serves to make the horror more intense as we the viewer seem to be the perpetrator. It also obscures the identity of the killer. Anyone could be this madman. He has no mask, and no modus operandi. This is Jason with his hockey mask and machete. He is an anonymous evil force that could be anyone. At various points in the movie it appears as though different characters could be the killer chief among the suspects is Peter who has a short temper and is clearly wound tight. There’s a deeply unsettling scene where he smashes a piano in a fit of rage. The film also does a nice job of building tension before the kills. It’s not about the murders it’s about the anticipation. The whole film is permeated by a sense of unease as anyone could be the killer and anyone could be next.

The first remake was released in 2006. This movie begins with the story of Billy Lenz a boy with a severely traumatizing backstory involving abuse, murder, and cannibalism. He was locked up for 15 years, until one Christmas he breaks out of the asylum and heads back to his old family house which is now a sorority house. The girls in the sorority are preparing for Christmas break when they begin receiving obscene messages and phone calls, and begin getting killed off one by one in extremely gruesome fashion.

The first difference is obvious. The killer’s identity is known from the beginning. His horrid backstory is laid out in excruciating detail. His motivations are clear. This is an interesting decision. It takes away the mystery and suspense the first film generated. It also doubles or even triples the body count of the first film. More backstory, more blood. Less build up. Less tension. The film is highly stylized. It has over saturated colors and is shot in the kind of style most early 200’s films were shot in here every frame is played for maximum impact. It feels at times like the director is a first timer and is throwing everything at the wall in the hopes that he’ll get noticed. The kills here are played for splatter entertainment and as such are over the top in the blood and guts department.

The final version was released in 2019 and stars Imogen Poots as Riley, a sorority sister who is trying to get her life back to normal after a sexual assault that occurred the previous year by the head of a fraternity. No one believed her except her sorority sisters and this year they get a little payback in the form of a Christmas talent show performance calling out the accused rapist. That night, they begin receiving obscene texts and messages from an unknown person. They are then attacked by multiple assailants dressed in matching black outfits. The sorority sisters must band together to fight back.

This one has some serious potential, not in the least because it stars Imogen Poots. She is an incredibly talented English actress who has been turning in wonderful performances under the radar for years now. She imbues her character with the shaky uncertainty of someone barely holding themselves together. She has these big eyes that communicate so much with every look. She’s great. The movie’s subject matter is also a very interesting topic that fits in with the setting of the story. A sorority attacked by a murderer is a prime metaphor for what is happening on college campuses all over the country. It is also a nice change up for the slasher genre. Young women have always been the target of slashers, but here that attack is extrapolated upon and made a broader theme. The problem is with the execution. Aside from one or two good jumps, this one is lacking the tension and fear of the first film, and due to its PG-13 rating it lacks the gore and splatter fun of the remake. There is also a twist at the end that neuters its theme and any potential message.

Now, let’s get into the spoilers. The identity of the killer is never revealed. Jess believes that it is Peter when he shows up at the house. He is killed, and everything seems to be okay. Then the phone rings again and the killer is still out there. The terror isn’t over. This film has such a well developed sense of dread and unease. It instills that sense of mistrust and suspicion in the viewer through its story telling and camera work. It’s a film that will stay with you long after the credits roll.

Compare that to the 2006 film in which all ambiguity is replaced by hard facts and specific details. It followed he trend of the early 2000’s which was to over explain icons. This information however, just makes the villain cartoonish and makes him less scary. He isn’t an evil voice on the phone who could attack anyone anywhere. He is a specific guy with a specific backstory. This film also falls prey to the greatest error of slasher films. As soon as the tiny teenage girl knocks him down he is no longer scary. Jason gets pushed over. Freddy trips and falls. As soon as these monsters can be taken out by an untied shoe or a good hard shove, they lose all creditability as agents of fear. How could I be afraid of someone who can be defeated so easily? This killer is just a killer. This movie is just a generic slasher with the name Black Christmas attached.

The most modern remake really could have been something special. The subject matter makes for a really compelling first half. As Riley deals with her trauma and begins coming out of her shell the movie takes its time and gives us a compelling human story which the first two versions don’t have. The movie is definitely the least scary. It opens with a stalking sequence that works really well. A girl is stalked on her way home. She prepares her keys to fight back. There is a false attacker. She relaxes and that’s when things go wrong. It’s a pretty good segment. It’s the only good one though. For the most part this movie plays like an action movie not a horror movie. These girls fight back and there are a lot of sort of forced girl power moments that don’t exactly ring true. The biggest problem I have is the ending.

The girls are being attacked by a fraternity. This fraternity uses black magic to drink a black goo that transforms them into killing machines. It also possesses anyone who drinks with the spirit of an ancient evil dude who hated women. This takes the blame away from the guys. They weren’t bad guys. They were just possessed by an evil spirit. There aren’t real problems with sexual assault on campus. These guys were just mind controlled. It diminishes the message the movie is trying to send. It also makes it way less scary. There is a whole fraternity of guys to get killed by the super sorority. One killer is scary, a bunch of killers is just canon fodder. It’s really unfortunate that they went this route. Don’t include the supernatural. If the movie is about men attacking women, depict men attacking women. Don’t let them off the hook with supernatural silliness.

The first Black Christmas is the best overall. It has the strongest impact. It is the most frightening and unsettling. It makes classic Christmas carols feel scary. The second has a really strong stylistic quality, and lots of blood. If that’s your thing, the 2006 version is the one for you. The third has the strongest lead performance and the beginnings of a really great story, but it falls apart in the finale. It’s also the least scary of them all.

Each one brings something to the table. These movies don’t have the same problem as the Omen and its remake where they just made the same movie but worse. These films try new things and take the set up in a variety of directions. They don’t necessarily work, but they are interesting to watch.

The original is my cup of tea. The 2006 isn’t really my cup of tea. The 2019 also isn’t really my cup of tea although I wish it was. I wish it was better. Original – A-, 2006 – C+, 2019 – B-

Sinister

The setup is standard, and there are a few obvious jump scares, but the performances, the cinematography, and the sound design are stellar. It all adds up to a solidly scary movie.

Ethan Hawke plays Ellison, a true crime writer who moves his family into a house where an entire family was killed in the backyard. Ellison wants to write about the family and figure out what happened. He doesn’t tell his wife about the houses history instead lying to her in order to pursue his next book. Little does he know that the evil that lead to the previous owners demise is still lurking in the house.

I love the way this movie is shot. Director Scott Derickson and cinematographer Christopher Norr bathe every scene in darkness. Every room is shrouded in so much shadow that it feels oppressive as if something could jump out at any second. The shadows loom over everything even during the day it feels dark. The framing here slowly builds up the tension and the fear. Every scene generates a sense of unease and tension. By limiting the light sources and allowing for shadows, the film also feels more real and grounded. It makes any fantastical elements feel like they could be happening in our reality.

There are several sequences in this movie that were shot with 8mm film. These sequence are wonderfully unsettling. They were shot using some of the last Kodachrome on the market. It was a film stock that was famous for its vivid color reproduction. The colors in these segments are vivid and beautiful until they become garish and horrid. The flicker of the 8mm film being projected also goes to serve the unease and creepiness of the moment. Finally, they have no accompanying sound. It’s silent 8mm film. The silence creates the most horrifying part as we are not able to break the tension of the moment with sound.

That silence is a wonderful tool used by Marc Aramian the sound designer. Sound designers don’t get enough credit in movies in general especially in horror films. Their work often makes the film. Without Aramian’s sound design, so many moments would fall flat, and that sense of tension that permeates the film would be greatly dissipated. He wields silences like a weapon against the audience. He slowly turns up the heat with subtle ominous tones. He sends us over the edge with unique crescendoes that sound simultaneously like a human scream and an animals roar. It’s great work.

Ethan Hawke is fantastic here. He anchors the film as a man who allows his own obsessions to lead him to some very dark places. He is such a stalwart performer that those moments when he freaks out resonate all the more because of how steady he is throughout the rest of the film. There is a truly great scene between Ellison and his wife Tracy, played by Juliet Rylance. It comes late in the film, and it is just a brilliant show down between these two characters. It is allowed to breathe and play the way the scene needs to. It humanizes their situation. It builds their relationship. It deepens the conflict and sets everyone on a new path for the rest of the film. It’s awesome work from Hawke and Rylance.

What doesn’t work? The setup is pretty standard. Family moves into a new house, there’s something in the house. We’ve seen this before. There’s a nice twist in that he knows the history of the house and she doesn’t, but it’s still a standard setup. The characters also make a lot of bad decisions. Standard horror movie decisions, but bad decisions none the less. Just get out of the house! Just put the evil box of evil back in the attic and leave it alone.

My final complaint is that there were a few too many jump scares. There were some spectacular jump scares in the movie. Don’t get me wrong. But there were some jolts that were so obvious that I rolled my eyes instead of jumping out of my seat. One in particular involves Hawke investigating noises in the house at night. The camera has him framed awkwardly on the left with a perfect amount of space on the right side of the frame for something to jump out. Everything gets real quiet. Suddenly, a face appears on, you guessed it, the right side of the frame. It’s accompanied by a loud music cue. It also looks like it was accomplished with unconvincing cgi. Moments like that don’t spook me, and the movie has a couple of them.

That said, a jump scare later works brilliantly wherein Hawke is looking at a photograph of the backyard. He is trying to make out a small detail. He holds it up to the window looking out onto the real backyard. He lowers the photo to see something in the yard exactly where he was looking. What he sees turns out to be scarier than I anticipated and I got two scares out of one setup. Bad jump scare. Great jump scare. Luckily there are enough great ones to help make up for the bad ones.

The movie also has a delightful sense of humor. Too many scary movies hit one note and just keep pounding that one note. This movie takes the time to have a truly hilarious scene between Hawke and Deputy So and So. (that name is explained in a great scene.) Hawke says he thinks he hear footsteps in the attic. The scene builds from one line to the next as the deputy discusses what small animal might have feet big enough to make a noise. Snake? No. Scorpion? No. Squirrel? That’s more like it. It’s great to be able to laugh during a scary movie.

Overall, I was genuinely freaked out by this movie. There’s a lot of great stuff here. I’d definitely recommend it. It’s my cup of tea. A-

John Carpenter’s The Thing

A classic for a reason, this 1980’s horror film boasts some of the best and most gruesome practical effects in cinema. It also has a wonderfully tense atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion that feels oddly prescient. Not to mention an ending that will keep you thinking long after the movie is over.

Kurt Russel stars as MacReady, he’s a rough around the edges helicopter pilot working at an Antarctic research station. Russel is so good here in spite of his very silly looking hat. He just inhabits the role and really anchors the film. The film starts with a sled dog being pursued through the snow by a helicopter. The helicopter team is trying desperately to kill this dog. The dog and helicopter team approach the American research center and the helicopter is soon destroyed.

The dog is taken in, and I haven’t yet forgiven this film for making me afraid of strange dogs. MacReady and a couple others go to investigate the base where the helicopter team came from. Once there, they discover a horrific scene. This is one of the best set pieces in horror movies. The atmosphere is so thick with the icy weather, the ruined base, and the horrific special effects displaying the remains and ruins of what must have been an unbelievably awful to this place. I love this scene. It’s short and quiet, and it serves as an icy portent of things to come.

Back at the research station things begin to get creepy and gross. They come to realize that there is an alien life form that can take on the appearance of any living thing. The team descends into chaos as they try to determine who is the monster. The special creature effects used to create the monster are some of the best and most stunning I’ve seen. They are all done practically and without CGI. This gives them a tactile sense that can’t be matched by modern effects. When a body part gets dismembered, it might not look one hundred percent “real”, but there is a visceral thrill watching something actually happening in front of our eyes. CGI always tends to trigger an awareness response in the brain. We know it’s not real. We check out. Here, the arm might be prosthetic, but there is an innate thrill in watch a facsimile of an arm get cut off that doesn’t happen with modern effects.

There’s also such wonderful imagination on display here. The creature contorts and mutates in gross and vividly imagine ways. There’s is a famous shot of an object sprouting legs and scurrying off. This effect is still grotesque and mesmerizing almost 40 years later. The imagination to come up with that idea, the skill and craft to build something that could perform that idea, and the technical knowhow to shoot it in such a way that it not only looks impressive but also inspires the right fear is thrilling to see.

The movie does have a bleak tone. It was criticized upon its release for its nihilistic tone. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it nihilistic. It is a dark film with a dark and complicated ending that doesn’t give easy answers, but it isn’t hopeless. At least I don’t feel hopeless when the movie ends. I don’t want to give away the ending here except to say it ends on an ambiguous note. That might be frustrating for some viewers, but for me it closed out the films themes in perfect fashion. That is what I’m looking for more often than not, an ending that closes out the themes of the film rather than answering every nit picky little question a viewer has in mind.

This movie is a lot of fun to watch. It’s incredibly tense. There is doubt cast on every characters true nature and allegiance throughout the movie building the tension and suspicion beautifully. The effects are awesome. The acting is brilliant across the board. The cinematography is top notch. The use of light and shadow is absolutely gorgeous. I’m a big fan of this movie.

It’s definitely my cup of tea. A

You’re Next

Are you in there mood for insane violence, pitch black comedy, excellent setup and payoff, truly chilly horror and a fantastic heroine? Then You’re Next is the movie for you.

Released in 2011, You’re Next is a darkly comic take on the slasher genre. It follows a family that has gathered at a remote estate house to celebrate the parents anniversary. The siblings are bickering and snide with one another. The parents are filthy rich and clearly play favorites. Old resentments are reaching a boiling point and caught in the middle is Erin, played by Sharni Vinson. She is the young girlfriend of Crispian, played by A.J. Bowen, the put upon younger brother and everyones favorite punching bag. Erin is meeting the family for the first times and things could not go more wrong.

At dinner, Crispian’s older brother Drake, played to sneering perfection by Joe Swanberg, starts picking at his younger brother. Soon the whole family is embroiled in a heated argument. Suddenly, their fight is broken by an assault from outside. The family is under attack by unknown assailants. These assailants wear white animal masks that are instantly iconic. Wonderfully creepy design.

As the family panics it is Erin who steps up with her cool head and clear vision for survival. As the entire family dissolves into bickering and sniping at one another, Erin locks the windows and gathers weapons. This is why I love this movie. We have a slasher movie with a capable heroine. Someone with the presence of mind to lock the doors and windows and arm themselves. She suggests gathering in the safest room and waiting out the attackers. She makes mistakes and not everything she tries works, but she has the forethought to take practical steps to ensure her survival. I love this. It’s so refreshing to see in a horror movie.

That practicality is coupled with a family that can’t stop arguing. It’s so funny. People are dying and they are arguing about how they never feel supported by their siblings. The family bickering is absolutely hilarious because it comes from a very true place. These characters remain true to themselves and that’s just so funny in this situation. These are spoiled entitled brats who are now faced with the most horrendous situation imaginable. Who care’s who dad’s favorite is? They’re coming to kill us! I love it.

The film is not only comic, but incredibly frightening. There are some wonderful jump scares in this movie. They are well set up, and perfectly executed. I also love how the film utilizes the entire frame to build suspense as characters appear in the background or the foreground to amazing effect. This is a very intense horror film as well as being a darkly comic one.

The movie is also incredibly violent. It’s extremely bloody, and the gore is cranked up to eleven. I’m going to get into a few spoilers here, so beware. As family members are killed off, the manner in which they are killed escalates. The first death is a crossbow bolt to the head, by the end there are knives in eye sockets and a blender jammed into someone’s skull before being turned on. It is extreme, but it is also wildly entertaining. It sounds horrible, but the blender moment is so over the top and insane it crosses over into comedy territory albeit very dark humor. There is a moment when a character stabs another multiple times because the victim won’t die, and the character exclaims, “Would you just die? Can’t you see this is hard enough for me?” Absolutely horrible, but absolutely funny if you’re tuned to that kind of dark humor. If that’s not for you, please avoid this movie. You will hate it.

I love this movie. It has a wonderful heroine who is capable and powerful. It is genuinely scary throughout. The violence is well shot and really well edited for maximum impact. The characters are well drawn and perfectly acted across the board. The film sets up items and situations that all payoff by the end of the movie. It’s smartly written and wonderfully directed. I’m all for this movie, but I understand it might not be for everyone. The violence will turn people off. The tonal shifts might not work for some. That said, if you give it a chance and get on its page it’ll be a fantastic ride.

It’s one hundred percent my cup of tea. A+

Midsommar

Who’s ready to feel deeply disturbed and unsettled by an expert filmmaker and a truly fantastic performance from a young actress?

Midsommar is a 2019 folk horror film written and directed by Ari Aster. This is only his second feature after the terrifically horrifying Hereditary. This film follows Dani, played by Florence Pugh, a young woman trying to cope with a horrible family incident. Her gaslighting, neglectful, indecisive, little puke of a boyfriend Christian, played by Jack Reynor, is going on a trip to Sweden with some friends. He doesn’t tell her about it, and then half heartedly invites her along. Little do they know what horrors this trip has in store for them.

Upon their arrival, they go to their friend Pelle’s tiny remote village. One character describes it as a hippie commune. Pelle describes it as a tight knit community with special rites and traditions. It’s the summer solstice celebrations that are drawing Christian and his friends. Just how far these traditions go is where the horror comes in.

Just like with Hereditary, Aster centers the whole film around one powerhouse performance. Florence Pugh is spectacular here. She goes through a harrowing ordeal in this movie. She plumbs the deepest depths of despair. She climbs to the heights of multiple panic attacks. She conveys the anxiety and insecurities of her character as well as the slow growth into confidence. Florence Pugh is stellar. If this wasn’t a horror film, she would have been nominated for an Oscar for this performance.

As for the other characters, Christian is the worst kind of person. He’s indecisive and carrels toward the feelings of others. His girlfriend of four years endures an unbearable loss, and he just sort of puts his arms around her and waits for her to stop crying. He claims he wants to break up with her but worries he might want her back someday. So he keeps her on the hook just in case. He forgets its her birthday. He tricks her into apologizing to him after he lies to her. He sucks, and Jack Reynor does a great job of making him suck without diving headfirst into comic villain. He feels like a real person not a stereotype or cardboard cutout. the rest of the friend group is pretty much stock types. The intellectual and the horn dog. The horn dog in particular has some hilarious lines and some laugh out loud moments. Which is a nice way to break up the unrelenting unease the movie creates.

Ari Aster is in full control of this movie. The way he uses every cinematic element to create tension and unease is spectacular. He holds shots for longer than he should. We are waiting for the edit to give us some relief, but he denies us that relief. By using long extended takes he wields the edit like a weapon. The sun never fully sets in this part of Sweden at this time of year, so there is no relief there either. It feels unnatural and unrelentingly bright. He also uses subtle special effects that will make you feel truly uneasy as the backgrounds seem to dance and move unnaturally.

The movie is gruesome and there is blood, but it’s not particularly violent or gory. There are two bludgeonings in the movie, but everything else takes place off screen. What we get to see is the results and the implications are left up to our imaginations. This makes it far more disturbing, but it also makes it far more mild. Based purely on what we see in the movie, it’s not that hardcore.

I’m going to get into specifics here. There will be spoilers. I am about to give away the secrets of the movie. Prepare yourself… Basically, the small community sustains itself by adhering to ancient customs. These involve ritual human sacrifices. The community believes that only through death can their way of life go on. They have lured Christian and his friends to their village to use them as sacrifices. One by one they all disappear only to show up at the very end in various forms of dismemberment. The horn dog follows a girl off screen and then shows up again after he has been murdered, skinned, and stuffed with straw. We see the result. We don’t see how he got there. Our imaginations fill in the blanks. It’s horrifying, but only in our minds.

More spoilers. The ending of the film is weirdly a happy one. Dani spends the film in deep grief. Her parents and sister die in the opening minutes of the film. Her boyfriend is emotionally manipulative and doesn’t respond to her needs. In the commune, she finds a group of people who accept her and celebrate her. The community has a habit of taking on the emotions of anyone of their members. When someone is in pain, they all cry out. When someone laughs they all laugh. When Dani is shrieking in pain and anguish, a group of women shriek alone with her. They all accept what she feels and feel it for themselves. In the end, Christian is sewn into a bear carcass and burned alive as part of a ritual. Does he deserve this? No. No one does, but does his demise create an emotional release that allows Dani to be free of her crippling grief? Yes, and that makes for a happy ending. Our heroine wanted to find peace from her internal struggle. She achieves that in the end. Christian had to burn alive to get there, but she did get there. That is our hero triumphing. That is a character finding closure and emotional support. It’s weird and extreme, but it is a happy ending. This is my second viewing. The first time I was much more conflicted about the ending and what it meant. This time, I was all on board the Dani train. I see this ending has a complicated but happy conclusion.

The film is disturbing, but is it scary? I was not scared during this movie. I felt like the ground was shifting underneath my feet. I felt the impact of the director’s unsettling style, but I can’t say I was ever scared while watching this. I was intrigued and engaged by Dani’s journey. I was upset by the terrible implications of what I saw, but I was never truly scared during this movie. It taps into the intellectual side not the emotional side. It’s a really nice change of pace compared to all the ghosts and jump scares I’ve seen.

I love Florence Pugh’s performance. I love the cinematography. I love how it upends expectations and tears the rug out from under us at every turn. I’d like to know who hurt Ari Aster and what trauma he’s trying to work though with these movies because they are brutal at times. All in all, it is my cup of tea. A

Hereditary

This is not a fun scary movie. It is a brutally intense tour through some of the ugliest emotional places a family can go. It deals with grief and loss and blame in a very serious family drama that descends into the most horrific realms of terror imaginable.

The story concerns the Graham family. Annie’s mother has recently passed away, and the remaining family members are all coping in different ways. I won’t give away anything more than that here. I went into this movie blind, and I think that’s the right way to experience it.

Annie is played by Toni Collette in one of the best performances in any horror film. She is so good in this movie it is almost unreal. She sweeps us up in her journey. She had a deeply complicated relationship with her mother. They were at odds for most of her life, and now that she’s gone the grief is deeply complicated as well. Collette brilliantly conveys these buried grievances and complete feeling with well chosen vocal inflections and perfectly placed pauses. As new grief and new trauma compounds in Annie’s life, Collette creates a portrait of a woman seemingly losing her grip on reality. The emotional places she goes to in this movie are unreal. It’s herculean emotions she pulling off here.

The film is deftly shot. The cinematography here is truly spectacular. It is so precisely framed that there is never any doubt that the director is in complete control of what we see and when. It’s comforting to know we’re in good hands. It’s also comforting to know we’re watching something that has been well thought out. There is a reoccurring motif of miniatures and models. Annie builds little miniature tableaus depicting her life. The film opens with a trippy and seamless shot in which the action seems to be taking place inside a miniature. It’s just great filmmaking that requires a precise touch and expert planning. Peppering themes and motifs throughout the film with simple visual cues. It enriches the movie to a great degree.

There is one sequence at the 30 minute mark that is so horrible I won’t describe it. It starts with a payoff that got setup in the early moments of the film, and the tension builds and mounts to a fever pitch. Suddenly, we are in a tsunami of tension as things escalate. Then it all comes crashing down. From this point, there is a four minute sequence of total silence that is one of the most excruciatingly tense bits I’ve seen in a movie. The dread mounts. The tension ratchets up with every passing second. Four minutes of silence that are unforgettable and caused a physical reaction in me as I gripped the edge of the sofa. Everything comes together in this sequence. Great performances. Twisted writing. Brilliant cinematography. And direction that plays the audience like a conductor plays the orchestra.

I should hate this movie. We’re going to get into spoilers territory, so avert your eyes. The movie ends on a down note. It is a very bleak ending. It implies that the characters had no choice in their fates. These characters were always pawns in a game much larger than themselves. I hate bleak nihilistic endings. I hate when a film offers no hope, yet this movie works for me. The reason I think it works is that the bleak ending is not inevitable. The characters do make choices, it’s just that they are in such a bad place emotionally that it feels to them and us like the only choice. When we enter those states of deep emotional trauma we lose sight of what’s important. This movie is just a reminder of how bad things can get when we get lost in our own problems and forget to reach out to those around us.

This movie scared me. There are a couple of moments where a shape lurking in the shadows creates a bigger jump than a million cats jumping out of a million closets ever could.

This movie is gruesome. There is a moment toward the end that is one of the most horrifically bloody things I’ve seen.

This movie is deeply emotional. It really could play as a straight up family drama. A nighttime confession between mother and son is more tense and horrifying than most of the scary movies I’ve seen this month.

It might be unsatisfying for people. It does not exactly have a happy ending. It drags us through some dark emotions. It exposes the cracks in family that we all hope don’t really exist.

I was really affected by it. I don’t know that I love it. It’s not one I could watch every day or even every year. Because of the traumatic places it goes, it’s not exactly a fun spooky Halloween movie. It’s more a hard hitting horror experience. I definitely recommend it for its impeccable quality, its unsettling scares, and the stellar performance from Toni Collette. It’s my cup of tea. A+

Splice

Splice is a very engaging and fascinating little update on the Frankenstein story until it isn’t. More than almost any other movie I’ve seen this films ending feels like someone grabbed the wheel and jerked it hard steering the movie onto a different road entirely.

The story concerns the genetic experiments being conducted by Clive and Elsa played by Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley. They are crafting brand new organisms by splicing animal DNA together. It’s a classic “playing God” scenario, and they take it even further when Elsa splices in some additional DNA. This creates a humanoid creature that she names Dren. They have to hide Dren from their corporate overlords lest it be taken away and destroyed. As Dren ages and develops things get weird. Dren introduces questions for the couple regarding life, creation, and nature vs nurture. It also introduces personal questions dredging up Elsa’s traumatic childhood, Clive’s repressed desires, and the fragility of their bond.

This is the most interesting element of the movie. The psychological underpinnings of the film are baked into the premise. How do you raise something that isn’t yours? It is a metaphor for adoption as one parent embraces the child and the other withholds affection still holding out hope for a natural born child of their own. It also dives into the Freudian implications of Dren and her relationship to her parents. This is where the movie sort of tips you on your side as you watch. The sands seem to shift as compassion for these characters is tested. It feels like the characters are trying to see how much they can get away with before you reject them.

As for Dren herself, she’s a wonderful creature creation. She is borderline human at all times. Her eyes are human even if they are too far apart. Her earliest incarnation is kind of cute. It’s like a rabbit except more like a human rabbit. As a child, she is a cgi actress hybrid. She looks more human, but at all times she’s a little too different to be fully human. As a teen or adult, she is mostly human and played by Delphine Chanéac. Dren doesn’t talk, so her movements have to do the heavy lifting, and Chaneac does an incredible job of expressing clearly her every emotion, want, and need. It’s a great performance combined with some excellent CGI.

The biggest problem with the movie is the ending. The movie builds beautifully and naturally. The conflicts and the desires of each of the characters intensify until a breaking point. Big things happen, and the consequences will be dire. All the most twisted implications of the premise begin to come to a head. Then the movie shifts into a standard monster movie ending. Dren turns into a full blown CGI monster and the movie takes a major nosedive. It ignores all the questions it raised. It abandons all the tension and interpersonal and psychological conflict in favor of monster movie cliches.

This is conjecture, but I feel like the studio stepped in and said, “nope this is getting too weird. We need an action climax. Make it happen.” The movie just shifts so abruptly from the disturbing yet interesting stuff to the standard stuff. I got invested in these characters and their story. That story is more or less kicked to the curb just when it gets cooking. Those questions are forgotten. That character conflict is never brought up again. It’s a hugely disappointing finale.

If you want to watch two thirds of a good movie, or if you have a craving for something really weird and compelling even if it doesn’t stick the landing, then check out Splice now streaming on Netflix. If you want a fully satisfying story, look elsewhere. I watched this one, so you don’t have to.

It’s kind of my cup of tea. B

The Taking of Deborah Logan

For a found footage horror movie, this one isn’t bad. It has some delightful jump scares, some fun use of the format, and a great central performance. If you’re looking for a solid jolt or two, this is a good choice.

Full disclosure, I don’t like found footage. I avoid it in most cases. It’s supposed to feel more real and immediate, but it typically ends up coming off forced and hokey. The artificiality of the medium usually overpowers any authenticity the film is striving for. That said, I have enjoyed a couple of found footage horror movies immensely. I’m happy to add this one to that list.

Released in 2014, The Taking of Deborah Logan follows a documentary film crew as they attempt to make a movie about Deborah Logan, a woman with Alzheimer’s disease, played by superbly by Jill Larson. However, as their time with Deborah goes on, the crew begins to realize that something more sinister is going on under the surface. They uncover secrets from Deborah’s past and possibly something evil lurking within.

We’re going to start with the positives. Jill Larson. She is astounding. She plays a severe elderly woman who is slowly succumbing to a horrible disease. The moments when her memory slips away from her and she struggles against those around her are truly fantastic. She brings a real strength yet also a vulnerability to these moments that is utterly convincing. She is also brilliant in the big horror moments. She contorts her body and writhes in such a way that you’d believe she was possessed for real. To top off this great performance, she has a dead eyed stare that is truly chilling every time she looks over her shoulder and into the camera. It’s fantastic.

The movie is full of jump scares. So far this month, I’ve talked jump scares down quite a bit. They are not inherently bad. They can and often are used brilliantly. However, most of the time, they are just a cheap scare trying to bolster a bad movie. Here they are done very nicely, and they play into the found footage format. There is a scene in which the camera man enters a room. It’s very creepy. We think he’s alone in the room, then he sees Deborah, then another character speaks. We jump. We didn’t know that other person was in the room with the camera man. It works really well. It’s well crafted and utilizes found footage the way it’s supposed to be used. It’s not what we see, but what we don’t see that is the most frightening. This is often just frustrating and annoying, but here it pays off well.

That said, this doesn’t feel real. It feels so artificial because they’re trying so hard to make it feel real. Every found footage movie has the same problem. Why are you still recording????? What person in their right mind would continue filming during the situations these characters find themselves in? It’s just silly to think that in a life or death situation a person would step back and get a good shot. This movie does this throughout. From quiet conversations that no one would film, to big scary moments that no one would film, the movie is full of silly moments like this.

The other big problem is how many cameras this micro-budget film crew has. They have multiple documentary cameras, plus hidden static cameras to monitor every corner of the house, plus a night vision cam to record Deborah while she sleeps. Why would a tiny budget documentary crew have these cameras? Why would they set them up? If you’re making a documentary about a person’s journey with Alzheimer’s why would you record them while they’re sleeping? This is also a problem in certain scenes where they apparently put up three or four cameras in a hospital room to monitor Deborah when she goes to the hospital. As the scene progressed and they kept cutting to new angles it just felt absurd. How many camera’s do they need in there? Is the hospital okay with that many cameras in a patient’s room? When did they set all those up? How did they know they’d need all those angles? Questions like these pulled me right out of the reality of the movie.

I’m going to end on a positive note, there are some truly disturbing images here. There are some horrific moments that play out in very understated ways to chilling effect. When the movie is focused on Deborah, it really rocks. When it ventures off into found footage cliches it feels super tedious. Luckily there is enough good to really outweigh the bad. I enjoyed it quite a bit in the end in spite of my complaints with the genre.

A bit of a mixed review, but it is my cup of tea. B

Mandy

I’ve never done acid, but I imagine that this movie is what a bad trip is like. It uses wildly saturated colors, a bonkers Nicholas Cage performance and some deeply disturbing imagery to create a movie unlike any I’ve ever seen.

The film the most dreamlike execution I’ve seen in a long time. We sort of float through the opening scenes of Red Miller (Nicholas Cage) and Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough) in domestic happiness. It is 1983, and this couple live in bliss in the deep woods. They share moments that bleed into one another the same way fever dreams do. Never really sure if a moment is real or dreamt. Then it all goes wrong. I fear saying too much about what exactly goes wrong and how would give away too much of the film. Suffice to say, things get very weird very fast. This is one of those movies that start at a ten and somehow go bigger from there.

Nicholas Cage isn’t so much an actor as a performer. He doesn’t just play a part. He puts on a show in every movie he’s in. His shows range from small scale backyard fireworks, to literal bombs exploding in midair. Here he gives the latter performance. His energy is massive. It seems like he’s trying to melt the screen with his intensity at times. There’s a memorable line from the movie Amadeus in which Mozart’s music is criticized for having “too many notes.” The same could almost be said for Cage here. He simply has too many notes that he plays in this movie. He runs the emotional gamut up and down the scales from one extreme emotion to the next. He just blares through every single note in the actors arsenal.

The designs of this film is incredibly memorable. There are some vividly realize sequences and set pieces, but the design extends to the smallest details. The film has a very 80’s aesthetic that is fully realized here because of those small details. The way clothes and vehicles look, the tactile nature of the film stock used to make the movie all lends an incredible specificity to the film that feels bigger and more epic than it really should. It’s an incredible feet of production design.

The cinematography here is so surreal. It is unlike any movie I’ve seen. The use of color expressive in a way few films dare to be. There is an early scene in which Mandy encounters a group of nefarious characters that is shot in our red. I’m not sure if they used red filters, or some sort of post production special effect to create the red look, but it is a vivid and unique use cinematography to express the subtext of the moment. You just don’t see stuff like that in movies anymore. Most films try to be as realistic as possible, never breaking from the reality of the moment. Here is a film that throws that out the window and presents the viewer with an assault of color.

The film is very violent and very grotesque at times. There are things that happen, that I’d rather not describe. It is not for the faint of heart. It is brutal and unrelenting. The brutality is somehow made even more horrifying by the films dream like quality. Somehow the surreal expression of the film combined with the saturated color palate makes the violence even more intense.

This film is a truly unique artistic expression. It can definitely be accused of being too much style not enough substance. The plot is thin. The story is small. The characters are not deep. But the execution of the story is so vivid and incredible that for once I’m okay with style over substance. The movie is absolutely crazy, and if you can stomach the assaultive color palette, the brutal violence, and the lead performance that is beyond over the top you’re in for one heck of a movie.

It’s mostly my cup of tea. B+