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+

The Lodge

If you’re looking for a movie to crawl under your skin and lodge itself in the darkest part of your brain, oh boy do I have the film for you. The Lodge is a psychological horror film, that is more interested in building dread than creating scares.

There is little that can be said of The Lodge without giving too much away. Suffice to say, Riley Keough plays Grace, a young woman in a relationship with a man played by Richard Armitage. He has two children from his previous marriage and wants Grace and the kids to bond at the family lodge in the days leading up to Christmas. However, it’s not a happy week in the woods. Things go very wrong in every conceivable way.

The plot doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny. Honestly, as I go over it in my head, the plot mechanics really don’t add up. It doesn’t really matter though. The practicalities are less important than the overall effect. Because the actions these characters take are far less important in the movie than the results of those actions. And oh boy do they have some intense results. The movie is an interesting exploration of a damaged psyche and how badly people can hurt one another when pushed to extremes.

Riley Keough is mesmerizing as Grace. She has a quiet intensity and a deeply engaging look that holds the attention no matter what she’s doing. She has a great natural quality at the start of the film and as things go wrong her frazzled harried inner self is communicated through those eyes.

The film is really well shot. It looks natural and yet unnatural at the same time. There are moments where the lens is so wide it distorts the room to make everything looked warped and twisted. Yet throughout the second half of the film it appears to be shot entirely with natural lighting. This makes everything look more or less the same way our eye would see it if we were there. But that natural lighting also creates vast dark shadows that swallow up whole portions of the house behind the characters.

This is not a traditionally scary movie. It’s aim isn’t to make you jump or keep you up at night. It wants to upset you and insert a splinter into your mind. It wants to get inside your head and make you squirm a little, and it succeeds. If that doesn’t sound like a pleasant experience to you then definitely skip this one. For me it worked because of the wonderful performances, the rich atmosphere, and the exceptional camera work. It also helps that it is a nice change of pace from the scary movies I’ve been watching recently. It’s my cup of tea. B+

The Mist

Do you want to feel bad about humanity? Oh boy, do I have the film for you. The Mist is a genuinely scary film that explores humanity’s worst impulses when faced with extreme situations. It is tense, horrific and bleak with great performances and not so great visual effects.

The Mist is a 2007 film based on a Stephen King novella about a small town that is encompassed by a mist. There seems to be something in the mist that has a habit of absolutely destroying anyone who ventures into the mist. The story follows David Drayton a loving husband and father. A terrible storm damages his house, so he and his son go in to town to get supplies. They stop at the grocery store when the mist descends upon them. They and many other townspeople are trapped in the store as monsters lurk outside.

Inside this pressure cooker of a grocery store, the residents begin to indulge their worst impulses. Fear and stress leads some to follow the rantings of a religious fanatic who claims to have all the answers. She’s played by Marcia Gay Harden. Others follow the logical to a fault Brent Norton played by Andre Braugher. Caught in the middle is David and the few people who don’t follow either extreme. The interactions between these people make for some extremely compelling drama. The situation is fraught with tension. The conflict escalates nicely, and the dialogue is pitch perfect.

Frank Darabont made a masterpiece from a Stephen King novella with The Shawshank Redemption. Here is writes and directs another fantastic adaptation. He populates the store with richly drawn characters. His camerawork is exquisite. It’s a beautifully shot and perfectly framed movie. He captures the intensity of the situation with a camera that moves freely, but never crosses over into shaky cam territory. The character work is fantastic. These people don’t behave like action heroes or movie stars. They feel real because of the small moments, the attention to detail. How a character trips or stumbles, the way a person freezes when faced with something terrifying. The way they argue and justify mistakes. It is truly great work.

Spoiler alert, there are monsters in the mist. These monsters have some of the best creature design in any horror film. They are creatively conceived and vividly detailed. The trouble is with the cgi. These computer effects do not hold up. They look too shiny and slippery. They never seem to inhabit the same world as the characters. Every once in a while, they switch to a real life puppet or animatronic and the improvement in appearance is incredible. It’s sad they didn’t stick with practical effects instead of these rubbery looking cgi monsters. The crazy thing about the direction is that the fact monsters don’t detract from the tension. There’s a brilliant early moment in the loading dock where some fake monster attacks, but the scene is still rife with tension and horror. It is an incredible scene regardless of the cgi. That is a huge testament to the direction and performances.

I said this movie will make you feel bad about humanity. It made me feel terrible about people. It does not have a sunny disposition with regards to human nature. After this movie, it’s hard to disagree. This movie plays more viscerally in todays climate than it probably did in 2007. People are willing to follow any voice that offers solace in crisis. Critical thinking flies out the window when people are scared. People behave barbarically toward one another when threatened. What are the real monsters? The creatures out to get us, or our neighbors when they’re scared?

The real gut punch though comes in the final moments of the movie. It is one of bleakest and most hopeless endings I’ve seen. I saw it coming, but it was still horrible to sit through. It is a rough conclusion. I’m not a fan of hopeless endings. This was a challenge for me. I’m not trying to ward you off watching the movie, I think it’s a great movie. I’m just trying to warn you that if you go all in on this movie it might just break your heart.

Brilliant directing, great acting, and a tight script make this a deeply engaging movie with a very bleak outlook. If you have the stomach for it I definitely recommend it. It’s mostly my cup of tea. A-

The Omen (original and Remake)

This is a fascinating original versus remake because the two films share almost identical scripts. The movies are almost word for word the same, yet due to bad direction and poor performances one is completely boring and the other is a thrilling masterpiece.

We’re going to start with the original. Released in 1976, The Omen is a supernatural horror film directed by Richard Donner and starring Gregory Peck and Lee Remick as a couple who’s son just might be the antichrist.

The film opens with Peck’s character Robert Thorn faced with a horrible decision. His son has died just after birth and an orphan boy is born at the same moment. Does he switch the orphan for his own son and lie to his wife, or does he face the grief and devastation of losing the child? He takes in this child and that decision turns out to be monumental in ways he could never anticipate.

The film becomes this highly convincing montage of the family growing up. They appear to be a real loving family. Nothing strange about them, except on the boy Damien’s birthday when his governess kills herself at his birthday party in front of everyone. Then things start to go awry and Thorn begins to explore the origins of Damien and what it might mean for his family.

This movie is amazing. It is freaky. It is unnerving. It is both psychologically scary and full of visceral thrills. I loved it. There are sequences that build and build the tension slowly, until we can’t take it anymore and the movie snaps. There is a thrilling moment in which Damien rides his tricycle around his bedroom in a rapid circle until launching into the hallway to horrible results. The way the sequence builds is just a masterclass. The camera follows Damien in a dizzying circle. The action cross cuts with the precarious events taking place in the hallway. The soundtrack ratchets everything up to eleven until finally it all comes crashing to a head. It’s brilliant.

Every performance here is superb, but Gregory Peck is the standout. He is so charming and warm in the early happy family scenes. He is commanding and authoritative as he demands the truth of what his son is. He is lost and tormented as the truth reveals itself to him. He gives such a complete performance, that the movie might have been completely lost without him. Lee Remick infuses her smaller part with a believability and a charm that it needs. She is convincing as the warm loving mother. She rings true as she begins to realize something is wrong. She is not given as complete a story as Peck, but she gives it her all, and the movie wouldn’t work without her performance. As Damien, the child who may be evil incarnate, Harvey Spencer Stephens plays a child first and the devil second. He is just a kid for the most part. He is a happy little boy, but there is definitely something wrong with him. He has the wonderful ability to rigid and stare with dead eyes that creates such an eerie sense of unease. Two factors really make him work though, he has only two or three lines in the whole movie. He communicates almost entirely nonverbally. Also, he is never trying to be creepy. He is just playing a kid who stares a lot. It’s incredible especially for one so young.

Moving on to the remake, released perfectly on July 6th, 2006, the film stars Julia Stiles, Liev Schreiber, and Mia Farrow. The film is working from the exact same script with a few alterations. The first change is the opening scene. Instead of opening on Robert Thorn’s fateful decision regarding the child, it opens on a random priest using the Vatican’s telescope to look at a comet. It then cuts to a meeting of Vatican priests and the Pope. The meeting involves a powerpoint presentation of Bible verses and news footage showing how these Bible verses came true in modern times. It feels so wrong! This scene feels ugly and gross watching fake priests use 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina footage to justify their horror movie plot line. It is a gross way to start a movie.

After that, it cuts to Thorn and the choice at the hospital. The problems again become very clear right off the bat, Schreiber can be an excellent actor. He is good in other roles, but here he looks like a wooden carving of a generically handsome man. His acting’s so stale and one note that it looks like he made a bet to see if he could go through an entire movie without changing his facial expression once, spoiler alert, he won the bet. Without a charismatic and compelling lead, this film is left with little to steer the boat. Julia Stiles is okay if unconvinced as the mom of the little demon. She emotes well enough, but she feels like a stranger to the people around her. Mia Farrow plays Damien’s evil protector, a role brilliantly played in the original by Billie Whitelaw. Here Farrow just sort of plays a nice lady. She gives no hint of the evil under the surface. Nothing seems wrong or amiss about her. She feels like she wandered in from a very nice story movie about a friendly nanny.

The acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa once said, “With a good script, a good director can produce a masterpiece. With the same script, a mediocre director can produce a passable film.” Here is proof. With the same script, Richard Donner produced a truly great horror film with tense atmosphere throughout combined with spikes of massive horror. With that same script, director John Moore produced a boring film that doesn’t add anything to the story.

The directorial problems are glaringly apparent when looking at the two side by side. The remake has no point of view. The camera cuts wildly between perspectives and has no real sense as to whose perspective we’re seeing. The story also cuts wildly between two perspectives. The original follows Robert Thorn. The remake splits the focus between Robert and his wife. This divided attention creates a schizophrenic feeling as sometimes Robert is worried about Damien and his wife needs to calm him down. At other times, its the wife who is convinced something is wrong and he needs to talk her down. I appreciate trying to give the wife a more active role, but doing so actively diminishes the impact of the story. Rewrite the script entirely if you want to give her more to do.

Also, the remake replaces suspense and tension with more of everything else. It doesn’t build to the horror, it just ups the violence. Gone are the intricate set ups that lead to big moments. Gone is the stellar soundtrack that puts the viewer on edge. Gone are the off kilter camera angles that signal horror is on its way. Present are cgi blood and guts. If a character fell one story in the original, they fall two stories in the remake. If they get stabbed with a spike in the original, they get stabbed with a spike and a hundred pieces of broken glass in the remake. This isn’t scarier or more interesting, just more violent. It doesn’t have the same effect.

All right, I’ve complained about the remake enough. It was a fascinating experiment to watch both films one right after the other. I’m not a purist who only likes the originals because they’re old. There is observable filmmaking problems with the remake that diminish it. The remake is not good as a movie, and it especially suffers when compared to the original.

Watch the original. It’s awesome. It’s my cup of tea. A+

Avoid the remake. It is bad. It’s not my cup of tea. D+