Netflix List Blitz: RAMS

FYI :Rules of the Netflix List Blitz

  1. I’ll watch and write about every movie currently on my list. Pretty simple first rule there.
  2. I’m not obligated to finish a movie. I can’t think of any movie I’ve ever seen that started off horribly for more than twenty minutes and then ended up being worth the watch. A slow start or lull is fine, but if I get a sense what I’m watching is truly bad–in a completely uninteresting way–I reserve the right to abandon flick.
  3. I’m only watching movies on my list, not television series. Bates Motel, you’ll have to wait.
  4. I’m going in order of the current state of the list. Which, for the purposes of any smattering of readers who may start following along, is going to make this list appear quite random.
  5. I’m strictly going to write what I feel. Some entries may be in depth, some may focus less on the movie itself than on some outside thoughts the movie planted in my head, and some may entries may be improbably brief. (Given my propensity for longwindedness, don’t bet too much on that last one.)


I used to joke that if Netflix was a store that sold household goods and you bought kitchen knives from them, the clerk would ask at checkout if you’d like to get stabbed. “Because of your interest in knives.” In short, their recommendation system had some flaws.

It’s improved somewhat over time, but it’s still imperfect. You still get some ridiculous “related” recommendations, particularly when it comes to movies or filmmakers currently not on the service (Blood and Black Lace isn’t currently available for streaming, but Black Mirror and Blacklist are apparently related, because we know all Black-titled movies look alike).

I write all of this because I’m not sure how the film Rams ended up on my list. Obviously I added it, but I can’t imagine why. Netflix’s personalized rating system gives it 4.5 stars, which means that it thinks it’s the kind of movie I would love, but the provided premise doesn’t move me one way or the other: “Two estranged sheep-farming brothers must re-open dialogue with each other if they want to save their herds.”Doesn’t sound like something I’d go out of my way to watch or avoid. I’d never heard of the film before, I’m completely unfamiliar with its Icelandic cast and director. Nordic farmer family feuds and reconciliations aren’t a subject I’m actively into. To come clean here, Rams almost made me cheat on the basic rules of this Netflix List Blitz just three entries into the series.

I primarily write horror stories, and generally read a lot of horror fiction, crime novels and historical accounts, but I’m also a sucker for a good relationship story, or even a sappy relationship story, sometimes. Love Jones is one of my favorite movies and I have a huge soft spot for improbable romance road trip indy flick Take Me Home. On the platonic side of things, I really like the quirky relationship-building of The Life Aquatic, the core friendship in Swingers sustains the film, the ending of The Straight Story breaks and warms my heart every time, and Fried Green Tomatoes hits me right in the limbic system. So while I’m at a loss for what might have made me add Rams to my queue (if I had to hazard a guess, wine is probably to blame), it’s not as if it had no chance of entertaining or engaging me.

So how did I like the film? Well… well enough. The premise alone is somewhat quirky, but also a bit darker than what Netlfix offers. One of the estranged brothers, Kiddi, is not in the best place mentally, which is emotionally taxing on the other brother, Gummi. The film has jokes, but overall it has a darker sense of humor than I expected, as well. In fact, it has a darker, bleaker everything than I initially expected. Visually, it’s deliberately wan, even during some gorgeous wide shots of the Icelandic countryside. And, similar to The Straight Story, there’s are overriding conflicts with regret and time itself, acting as an unstoppable tag team. While the former can be managed, the latter always gets the win, no matter where the movie ends, some movies just make it more apparent than others. As for how apparent Rams makes it, well, I did say the movie was bleaker than expected…

Some day down the road, I think I’ll give Rams another viewing to see if I like it more than I do now. As it stands, it’s a solid film, and I don’t regret the time I spent on it, but for the most part it didn’t do much for me. But once upon a time, I felt the same way about The Life Aquatic before re-watching it and discovering a new favorite, and Rams has planted just enough promise in my head on first watch for me to think that maybe I just didn’t come into it in the right mood.

Up Next: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

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Netflix List Blitz: HIGH-RISE

FYI: Rules of the Netflix List Blitz

  1. I’ll watch and write about every movie currently on my list. Pretty simple first rule there.
  2. I’m not obligated to finish a movie. I can’t think of any movie I’ve ever seen that started off horribly for more than twenty minutes and then ended up being worth the watch. A slow start or lull is fine, but if I get a sense what I’m watching is truly bad–in a completely uninteresting way–I reserve the right to abandon flick.
  3. I’m only watching movies on my list, not television series. Bates Motel, you’ll have to wait.
  4. I’m going in order of the current state of the list. Which, for the purposes of any smattering of readers who may start following along, is going to make this list appear quite random.
  5. I’m strictly going to write what I feel. Some entries may be in depth, some may focus less on the movie itself than on some outside thoughts the movie planted in my head, and some may entries may be improbably brief. (Given my propensity for longwindedness, don’t bet too much on that last one.)


In the middle of the movie High-Rise, there is a montage that takes the situation from screwed-up to truly desolate. Our protagonist, Laing, undergoes what seems to be a critical mental break, and the titular high-rise luxury apartment building he lives in devolves into a wasteland. At the beginning of the montage, Laing is using the rowing machine in the still-pristine exercise room. By the end, the gymnasium is a dark ruin, and a trio of quasi-civilized men hover near the seemingly oblivious Laing and discuss whether or not they should beat and/or kill him.

This montage is well-shot and well-acted. It also blows up the pacing in an already clumsy, misshapen movie, speeding us from point C to point X. It’s a mistake, and a bit of a microcosm capturing what went wrong with the film adaptation of High-Rise.

To be fair, and to be clear, High-Rise is not a bad movie. It is, however, thoroughly underwhelming, particularly considering its potential and source material. High-Rise is a “cozy” dystopian drama about the devolution of a small contained society within a specific housing structure where the wealthy at the high-end exploit the lesser occupants at the low end until chaos and revolt become inevitable. For those who’ve seen Snowpeircer, it’s roughly similar, and in its own way not that much less improbable, although there’s nowhere near as much overt action, the gap between the haves and have-nots is considerably shorter, and the true revolt that brings down the system is essentially initiated by the elites in control. It has a very strong cast, starring Tom Hiddelston, Elisabeth Moss, Jeremy Irons, Luke Evans, and Sienna Miller. It has no excuse for being less than good other than simply suffering a failure of execution.

I’ve never been of the mind that being mediocre is somehow inherently worse than being bad. If you forced me to watch one of two movies and told me Movie A was average fare, while Movie B was atrocious, I’ll take my chances with Movie A ten times out of ten. I understand that sometimes a genuinely awful movie can be a curiosity, but I believe that some thoroughly middling movies can also rise to the level of curiosity, because many of them are squandered opportunities. Count High-Rise among those films.

As the novel begins, so does the movie, in the aftermath of the crisis that has turned a lavish tower block, so complete with amenities that you almost never have to leave, into an eerily homeostatic living hell. Things are bad, beyond bad even, but they also appear to be locked in place somewhat. That is to say, we get the impression that things at least won’t get significantly worse any time soon, so the next step for the story is to flashback to when things were decidedly less hellish. The token fidelity to the structure of the source material here is a mistake. Some things simply work much better on the page than on the screen, and when that becomes apparent, ideally, you realize you need to take a different approach. The book is able to maintain a distance and mysteriousness that the film doesn’t even try to mirror. Ballard speaks vaguely of violence and confrontation in this opening, whereas the film shows us a dead body and decrepit conditions. The novel gives us a third person narrator, whereas the film has Laing narrating. But these differences are only a problem because of the initial, half-hearted effort to follow the structure of the book when there’s no need to. This isn’t simply a case of the movie being too different or too similar to its source material: it’s a case of the people behind the film not recognizing how best to bring this story to their chosen medium.

Ballard’s novel never feels unsure of what it’s trying to be, but the High-Rise adaptation is hemorrhaging insecurity from start to hamfisted finish. The movie ends with a Margaret Thatcher quote that, in context, acts as a critique that aligns with my personal sensibilities, but simply doesn’t fit with the story that preceded it. It’s there, it seems, to spell out the movie’s themes in case the viewer still wasn’t sure of them after everything they’d seen. As a guy who thinks subtlety in fiction is sometimes overrated, I’m hesitant to complain about something being unsubtle. This, fortunately, is beyond that; it is uncertain. A truly confident adaptation of High-Rise wouldn’t be inclined to include such an afterword.

In between the misbegotten beginning and ending, and all around the similarly ill-advised montage, we get scenes from a would-be thriller, a would-be drama, a would-be satire, and a would-be psychedelic art flick. Such a hodgepodge can be effective in some cases, when backed by sound ideas, but in High-Rise it contributes to pacing issues that bloat the movie. The film ends up feeling longer than its two-hour runtime, and it’s all the more noticeable given how lean Ballard’s novel is.

Again, courtesy of a great cast and the general, mechanical competency and professionalism of all involved, High-Rise isn’t a bad picture. But a film that fails to be even above average when it could have been great, well, as I said before, that’s not worse than being bad, but it’s still, in its own way, somewhat painful to watch.

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Netflix List Blitz: The Man From Nowhere

New Year’s resolutions are, of course, arbitrary. That doesn’t mean the start of a new year is any worse starting point for making a change or doing something you’ve been meaning / wanting / needing to do. I told myself I would write much, much more in 2017, and writing in my long neglected blog is going to be part of that increased writing output. That said, blogging doesn’t always come so easily to me. Sometimes it’s not a matter of procrastination, sometimes I just don’t feel like I have anything to write about. So, to help ensure that I will write frequently, I’ve decided to employ a ringer. I’m going to blog about my attempt to power through my never-ending unwatched Netflix queue.

I don’t have a DVD account anymore (does that even need to be said at this point?), so this is strictly a streaming queue. Like so many other people, I’ve let the Netflix list get unwieldy, to the point that I’m sort of relieved when something I’ve been meaning to gets dropped from Netflix’s streaming service. Well, starting today, I’m setting myself a benchmark. I will try to get through at least a couple of these per week, and will write something about each flick after I finish watching. I’m giving myself a couple of outs and setting up a couple of rules for this as I go along.

  1. I’m not obligated to finish a movie. I can’t, off the top of my head, think of any movie I’ve ever seen where at some point I thought, “Wow, this is awful,” and then later thought, “Glad I stuck it out through the awful parts to get to the fantastic stuff.” It’s okay for a movie to start slow, or have a lull or dip or three, but if I get a sense at any time that what I’m watching is truly bad–in a completely uninteresting way–I reserve the right to abandon flick.
  2. I’m only watching movies on my list, not television series. Bates Motel, you’ll have to wait.
  3. I’m going in order of the current state of the list. Which, for the purposes of any smattering of readers who may start following along, is going to make this list appear quite random. And I suppose it essentially is.
  4. I’m strictly going to write what I feel. Meaning that some entries may be in depth, some may focus less on the movie itself than on some outside thoughts the movie planted in my head, and some may entries may be improbably brief. Given my propensity for tangents and long-windedness, if we set the wordcount over/under at 400, the safe money would definitely be on the over. But there’ll probably be some occasions where I’ll keep things to a few paragraphs and move on.

With all of that established, let’s get to it. First up…

THE MAN FROM NOWHERE

There was a time in my life  when I went out of my way to watch any remotely notable Asian gunplay movie. I spent a couple of years fawning over John Woo, then I saw Tsui Hark’s Time and Tide and chased any movie that could come close to giving me the feeling it gave me upon first watch. Then I spent a few years catching up to solid flicks such as Fulltime Killer and Shiri, appreciating them for what they were while part of me thought, “Nice, but you’re no Time and Tide.

At some point, my wild affinity for Asian action flicks completely subsided. The movies still looked relatively appealing to me, but I didn’t feel so compelled to watch them. I’ve added and subtracted (and re-added) The Man From Nowhere to and from (and to) my Netflix list two or three times. I add it because it looks good, and comes highly recommended. I subtract it because it feels like one of those movies I’m never going to be in the mood to commit to viewing. The solid 2-hour runtime didn’t help. Remember when action movies seemed to get right to the point, got in and out in90-minutes or so, an hour-forty-five tops? The Terminator is 107-minutes long and it has to establish a premise involving time travel and futuristic murder-droids and shit.

“But Johnny, what about Die Hard, and Terminator 2, and other rather long action movies from the 80’s and early 90’s.”

Bah. Begone with you and your facts.

The Man From Nowhere has one of those classic action movie premises where the bad guys mess with the wrong man. I love movies with that plot, if for no other reason than they remind me of the end of the 1991 Patrick Dempsey movie Run. After Dempsey’s bumbling character lucks into killing one last villain, the cop who’s spent the whole movie one step behind being helpful all night finally catches up to Dempsey, smiles at him and says, “They sure fucked with the wrong guy.” Uh, nah, Detective, sir, that’s not an accurate assessment of the way things went down. Dempsey’s character spends the whole movie accidentally surviving and accidentally taking out the criminals chasing him. It’s a surprisingly fun flick, but his success leaves his enemies relatively blameless, tactically speaking. You can’t fault the bad guys in Run for thinking that a guy who looks and acts exactly like the guy from Can’t Buy Me Love should be an easy kill.

The bad guys in The Man From Nowhere, on the other hand, have legitimately eff’d with the wrongest of wrong men to eff with. The primary villains of the film, two psychotic brothers with promising futures in the murder/narcotics/exploitation/evildoer business, don’t have direct run-ins with the hero initially, and are dismissive of a lackey who tries to tell them about how quickly and casually our hero, Cha Tae-sik, snatched a knife out of said lackey’s hand. Okay, fair enough, no bad guy ever takes a cowardly bastard lackey’s word for it when he tries to warn them that the hero is more dangerous than he initially appears to be. But then their chief lieutenant / hitman doesn’t dispute the lackey’s story, and also goes out of his way to comment about how calm Tae-sik was when the hitman shot someone else right in front of him.

I’ve never run a criminal enterprise myself, so I don’t want to be too judgmental about it, but I like to think that if I did run one, and the highest ranking murderer under my employment even hinted at warning me about some seemingly innocuous guy I may have made into an enemy, I’d have some follow-up questions. “Did he say he was coming after us? Did he mention anything about having ‘a particular set of skills’? Should we maybe not kidnap the little kid who’s the only person to befriend him and make him feel remotely human again?”

The movie has some similarities to John Wick, which means it has some similarities to Taken, which means it has some similarities to Man on Fire, which means it has some similarities to The Professional and probably several other movies and stories that predate all of the aforementioned. Hell, viewed from a high enough altitude, it has some very basic things in common with The Searchers. Tae-sik is a warrior with some disturbing things in his past–things he’s done and had done to him–and So-mi, the abducted girl, is his lone tether to humanity.

The big difference between The Man From Nowhere and the other movies I’ve mentioned is just how much more emotionally unashamed it is, and I say this as a compliment. As I watched the film, I realized just how much I had missed the naked melodrama of so many Asian action / crime thrillers that just doesn’t come naturally to most American/”Hollywood” flicks in the same genres. Those who’ve seen Infernal Affairs and its remake The Departed should know exactly what I’m getting at. For those who haven’t, or who’ve seen the latter but not the original, here’s a video that does a great job of highlighting the very different approaches to the same scene.

Naked, unashamed manipulation and emotion. I forgot how much I enjoyed that sort of thing in my action thrillers. The Man From Nowhere is a film very much in that same vein. It comes through in the stories and characters. Unlike his American counterparts John Creasy or Bryan Mills, Tae-sik, is apt to cry or tremble with fury or shock when the moment calls for it. When he sets up a villain to die with a timed explosive, somewhat reminiscent of Creasy’s actions in Man on Fire, he doesn’t preface it with a cool one-liner and then walk off without looking at the explosion. Instead he gives the villain a rundown of exactly why the horrible things he’s doing are may be even more horrible than they already appear to be. And he is seething. I like Man on Fire well enough, but outside of Christopher Walken’s “masterpiece” mini-logue, it’s got nothing on this flick.

By the way, about that horrible stuff that the villains are up to. So-Mi is one of many children who’ve been sold to the Chinese Mafia operating in Korea as “ants”–child slave laborers. They’re forced to act as drug couriers, money couriers and meth-lab workers, and when any of them eventually collapse from the exhaustion of running around town doing drop-offs and pick-ups and, you know, working nonstop around all of those horrible meth chemicals, they’re killed and harvested for organs to be sold on the black market. Which is already fucking appalling and leaves any action flick fan eager to see these bad guys get the shit killed out of them. Then Tae-Sik briefly takes things up to the border of horror story territory while lecturing the villain; he notes that with the children’s organs being involuntarily harvested and sold to different people in different parts of the country, their souls can never rest, and they’re forced to wander without peace or respite in death. With that in mind, it almost feels like the villains merely getting shot, stabbed and/or blown up to death are getting off a bit easy.

The Man From Nowhere performs one hell of a balancing act; it’s gruesome, it’s melodramatic yet affecting, it’s thrilling despite dour and largely humorless, it’s predictable but still builds anticipation. Save for one knife-fight near the climax that features some exhilarating first-person POV camerawork, the action is unexceptional, but it’s very well-executed, and worth your time if you’re an action-thriller fan. Had I not just committed myself to this “Netflix list blitz” idea, I’d be in the mood to spend a week or two catching up on all the Asian action flicks I’ve been neglecting. Instead, the next movie will steer me into somewhat surreal world of a “cozy”-dystopian drama.

Next up: High-Rise

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DON’T KNOCK TWICE Trailer Checks Off a Few of My Boxes

Spindly-limbed creature? Check.

Title that doubles as a warning? Check.

Black-and-white ink illustrations that look like they could be pulled from a fake grimoire? Pretty damn specific, and yet, that’s a check.

This isn’t a particularly great trailer. Pretty by the numbers, in fact. But I’m a sucker for the things that I am a sucker for, so it’s a given that I’ll be at least slightly interested in Don’t Knock Twice based just the small sample of it shown here.

There are some elements present here that I’ve come to  be wary of over the years, in particular the whole “incredibly powerful supernatural being is summoned by the most mundane action” thing. On one hand, I have a soft spot for such summoning, since Bloody Mary might be the first major fear I can remember in my life, and probably should be a subject of a future Confessions of a Fear Junkie entry. On the other hand, for many stories it makes very little sense, particularly when the supernatural creature is summoned to do someone’s specific bidding.  That said, the act of knocking on a door may not be what actually summons our supernatural antagonist at all, so I’ll won’t hold that against the movie just yet.

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‘Baskin’ May be as Close as We’ll Get to a Good Silent Hill Movie

While the pull-quotes in the trailer for the Turkish horror film Baskin compare it to Hellraiser, the actual content of the trailer is more reminiscent of the best of the Silent Hill games. It appears to be a story about location that is damnation incarnate, and the story kicks off due to a car accident involving someone suddenly appearing in the middle of the road. Check out the IFC Midnight trailer and the shorter, TIFF trailer below. Neither is graphic enough to enter red-band territory, but if you’re on the squeamish side of things, you may want to brace yourself.

Of course, comparing Baskin to either Silent Hill or Hellraiser simultaneously pays it a compliment and–at least potentially–does it a disservice. After all, who’s to say that this slice of cinematic Hell won’t edge the other two as a genre classic? Unlikely, of course, but it’s worth rooting for just the same.

The alternative is that the movie lands in Event Horizon territory: horrifically splendid visuals, but otherwise a missed opportunity. Based on the trailer, that also strikes me as unlikely. This looks inventive and brutal. I’ve seen a couple of blogs refer to this as an “extreme” horror film, at least based on initial impression, but I’m hoping this deserves a better description. Granted, it’s probably a product of my own bias, but when I think of “extreme” horror films, I think of unimaginative flicks that set out to be gore-fests, as opposed to clever, creative works that just so happen to be gory. Plenty of silly slasher flicks could qualify as “extreme” given the blood and guts on display, for instance, whereas the aforementioned Hellraiser is brutally, disturbingly graphic, but the gruesome images are in service of the film; they aren’t the point of the film.

Some reviews from the film’s showing at the Toronto Independent Film Festival are less than enthusiastic, and even one of the positive reviews that provided a pull-quote isn’t exactly effusive1 Still, I can’t help but keep this on my radar.

EDIT: By the by, these posters for the movie are terrific. The keyhole poster up top is the better of the two–and will likely be among the best movie posters I’ll see all year–but I appreciate the retro appearance of the one below.

 

Baskin-Movie-Poster-Can-Evrenol

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DiCaprio Gets Bear Mauled and Buried Alive in ‘The Revenant’

Bears are mankind’s most beloved incredibly dangerous animals. We’ve made the world’s most famous stuffed toy out of them. We’ve made several lovable cartoon characters out of them.  We’ve tamed them to do circus tricks. We named an embrace after them that’s supposed to be a wrestling hold, but do a Google image search for “bear hug” and it’s 95% cuddly friendliness. Bears are great, except for when they remember that they’re unstoppable, overpowering mounds of muscle, jaws and claws that would easily win the 100-meters in the Olympics.

45-seconds into the latest trailer for Alejandro Inarritu and Leonardo Dicaprio’s upcoming The Revenant, we get a nice display of how terrifying bears can be. Granted, I don’t exactly live a life of thrills and adventure, so this could probably be taken with a grain of salt, but this new trailer for The Revenant is one of the most intense things I’ve seen this month. Perhaps the best quote to capture the feeling you might get while watching this trailer comes from a friend of mine who just texted me, “Was that a real bear attack?” As brutal as it apparently was to shoot this film, I’m pretty sure Inarritu wouldn’t have called “Cut!” had it been genuine. I’m anticipating that the full-length version of the mauling on the big screen is going to be a bit tough to sit through.

To make matters worse, DiCaprio then gets buried alive by a grizzled man played by what appears to be Tom Hardy Lee Jones, right after Tom murders Leo’s teenaged son. Naturally, once DiCaprio finds the strength to crawl out of his ridiculously shallow grave, revenge is in order. And I’ll be happy to witness that revenge, as the Lee Hardy TomJones character already strikes me as a massive asshole, what with his murderous pursuits and such. Still, that is the kiddie-pool of graves. Shoddy, lazy workmanship, that. I’m pretty sure all he did was keep DiCaprio warm. Might as well put a blanket on him.

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And Now a Perfectly Morbid ‘House on Haunted Hill’ Poster

House on Haunted Hill color poster Jonathan Burton

The original House on Haunted Hill is one of those horror classics that’s more famous than it is genuinely “good.” It has a 96% rating over on Rotten Tomatoes, but even many of the good reviews are quick to deploy adjectives such as, “cheesy,” and “campy.” Most people who’ve seen the movie probably come away with the same impression. It’s fun, even memorable, and has some good, spooky ideas and moments, but for the most part it’s also shamelessly silly. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; not every horror flick should be an earnest affair. House on Haunted Hill was one of William Castle’s many gimmick-driven fright flicks, and it’s perfectly fine with being a morbid joke.

Fitting with that vibe is the above poster I came across that’s up for sale now on Mondotees.com. The suggestion of the woman hanged by a skeleton is certainly grim, but it’s actually an homage to the original poster, which was far more macabre, as you can see below.   House-on-Haunted-Hill-original-poster

The new poster–created by Jonathan Burton–is more coy about presenting the actual hanging, which makes it a bit grimmer by suggestion, though not as directly gruesome. The stiff woman in the original poster looks more like she’s just posing on her tip-toes. The partial view we get of the woman in the new poster has a sort of weightlessness to it that makes her look like she might be either a swinging body, or a floating spirit reliving its demise.

I prefer the look of the skeleton in the original, with its dingy bones. Its outsized scale also calls to mind the giant skeleton specter of a famous Japanese woodblock print. The skeleton in Burton’s new poster is just a little too “friendly,” clearly smiling right at us. But I think the knowing, calm expression of the seated Vincent Price is just about perfect. He looks like he’s expecting you to come in and take a seat so he can interview you for a job. “Oh, the living skeleton who appears to be killing someone to my left? Don’t mind him. That’s just Larry. He’s mostly harmless, I assure you.”

This new House on Haunted Hill poster also comes in black and white. I’m not really the type to decorate my home with movie posters, but I appreciate them, and were I the type, I think I’d go for the black and white version.

House-On-Haunted-Hill-print

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About That Crimson Peak Trailer…

Over on the BNC, I wrote about the trailer for Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak (if you haven’t seen it, you can watch it at the bottom of this post). Having rewatched it now, I feel like there a few more things I want to mention.

This cast is interesting. It occurs to me that I’ve only seen Hiddleston as Loki and in Midnight in Paris. So while my initial reaction is to say he’ll be great, I don’t have a very large body of work to personally base that opinion on. Jessica Chastain is a force. First thing I saw her in must have been Take Shelter, and she’s been good to excellent in everything since. Charlie Hunnam has a presence to him. I’m not going to hold the last few seasons of Sons of Anarchy against him, any more than I’m going to hold Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland against Mia Wasikowska. I don’t know how big of a role Jim Beaver will have in this–in a way he feels like the odd man out–but he might be my favorite actor in the cast. All in all, if the film doesn’t live up to its potential, it doesn’t appear that performances will be to blame.

Speaking of Tim Burton, I think his Dark Shadows might have been the last big budget, major studio release to take on the Gothic horror genre. That was a parody of the genre though, and between now and October, the recently released (and critically well-received) What We Do in the Shadows, which also has some fun at the expense of Gothic fiction elements, should reach a wider audience. I can’t remember the last time a notable, serious and unabashed take on Gothic Horror hit the big screen. The recent remake to The Woman in Black comes close, but doesn’t fully commit. Crimson Peak looks more reminiscent of films such as Black Sunday and House of Usher, both of which came out over fifty years ago. It’s hard to predict how audiences will receive Crimson Peak based on this. I’m hoping that people will appreciate it for something different from what they’ve grown accustomed to in horror movies.

And hey, speaking of October, am I wrong in thinking that this trailer seems to have a very early official release for a horror film? Last year at this time, Annabelle was still filming, and still received an October release. Its first teaser didn’t come out until July. Granted, that was a very different film, far less ambitious, but nonetheless highly anticipated. Two years back, The Conjuring had its first trailer officially drop in February as well, but that was in advance of a June release. We’re over half a year away from Crimson Peak coming to a theater near you. I actually find this promising. Somebody at the studio has faith in this picture; they’re giving it the blockbuster marketing treatment, at least in terms of building anticipation well in advance.

Overall, the Crimson Peak trailer has me eager to see it, but I’m even more excited by the talent surrounding the film, and the potential it has to be something unique in today’s film and horror fiction landscape. More often than not, studios use October as a dumping ground for quick-buck horror flicks–some of which are still good, but most of which are crafted specifically to capitalize on the Halloween season. This time it looks like we’re getting a picture that has every intention of being truly magnificent. 

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Horror Films “The Witch,” “Knock, Knock” and “It Follows” Made a Splash at Sundance

The Sundance Film Festival has, in the past, been something of a showcase for a variety of genre flicks. Reservoir Dawgs, The Blair Witch Project, Saw, Primer, El Mariachi all became notable at least in part due to the attention they received at Sundance. This year horror films have had a pretty strong showing at the festival, with three in particular standing out receiving high praise and/or considerable attention.

The Witch: A New England Folktale has been lauded as one hell of a scary flick at The Dissolve, Indiewire, Variety and elsewhere. It was apparently attracting quite a crowd, already a decent sign. The fact that it has apparently lived up to the expectation that such crowds would suggest is a better sign. Headline terms such as “Impressively Eerie” and Uniquely Spooky” all but certify that this is one to watch for when it reaches a wider audience.

The premise is as straightforward as the title. A period piece set in the 17th century, it concerns an isolated family in a rural area dealing with evils that are the result of malevolent witchcraft.

The-Witch-movie-sundanceWhile we’re on the subject of stories featuring witches, I figured I’d chime in briefly on the discussion about whether stories exploiting, focusing on or otherwise incorporating the real, murderous offenses that were witch trials are “troubling” or what have you. While I think it’s a fair issue to bring up, I also think it’s pretty easy to shoot down. Witchcraft, as presented in most works of genre fiction, is an element of lore. Witches are akin to ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and zombies; they are staples of horror. Actual, organized murders committed against innocent people during witch trials are obviously an appalling piece of history, but fiction is obviously a separate thing. Any halfway reasonable person shouldn’t see a movie where fictional, evil witches are presented as legitimately threatening and frightful as a justification for horrible shit that happened in the real life. Just like any halfway reasonable person wouldn’t see the actions of the fictional characters in the movie The Skeleton Key as justification for lynchings. And I think I’ve already laid out my stance on this blog that art and criticism shouldn’t cater or bend to zealots and lunatics who can’t qualify as at least “halfway reasonable.”

Moving on, It Follows has been on the radar for a little while already, having debuted to enthusiastic reviews last May in Cannes. The enthusiasm hasn’t waned: Slashfilm claims it is “the scariest horror film in years,” which, granted, is one of those phrases that seems suspiciously pre-made for blurb quote. It’s also generic enough to nearly be meaningless. (How many years? Two, three? Twenty-three? And “scariest in years” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s actually scary if nothing within the unknown number of years referenced has been all that scary to the reviewer.)

With that said, the unusual premise is already enough to bring it attention. It Follows concerns a sexually transmitted supernatural curse that causes the recipient to be, well, followed by an entity disguised as a human. It simply pursues you, patiently and relentlessly, never resting, with a brutal death being the end result of it catching you, and the only way to be rid of it is to have sex with someone else, but even that comes with a catch. On paper, it’s a little difficult to say whether this premise is silly or avant garde. It sort of sounds like The Ring with the videotape replaced by coitus. But regardless of your initial impression of the story idea, the execution has garnered almost universal praise, the horror and setting being described as “dreamlike,” “panic-rousing,” and “arresting.” And I have to admit, the trailer really sold me on it as an unconventional, highly unnerving horror flick.

So that makes two horror movies from Sundance that I’m eager to catch when they get an official release.

And that leaves us with Eli Roth’s Knock, Knock. Truth told, I’m not the biggest Eli Roth fan. I haven’t hated his movies, or even strongly disliked any of them, but I’m pretty indifferent to his “old-school, exploitative gore” aesthetic. I’m not averse to gore, but if you’re going to go Grand Guignol and showcase it in a manner that makes the gore the primary reason for the film to exist, then everything about it and the rest of the film needs to be amazing. To quote the Wu-Tang’s late, great ODB, “[You] wanna perform a massacre, [you] better be coming with some motherf*ng sh* that’s spectacular.” Color me critical, but I’m going to stop short of saying Cabin Fever or Hostel qualify as grand spectacle (I haven’t seen Green Inferno, so I can’t comment on that).

Now that I’ve just spent a paragraph waxing negative regarding Eli’s reliance on gore, here’s where I tell you that Knock, Knock apparently marks Roth’s first foray into psychological horror. This seems odd, considering it’s a remake of an obscure, 70’s exploitation home-invasion film titled Death Game, which inexplicably isn’t also the title 1,000 Bruceploitation movies, but that’s what we have here. The film stars Keanu Reeves as a successful everyman, the good father and good husband sort, who ends up being put in “fresh, difficult and exceedingly awkward situations” after opening the door one night, while the family’s away, to let in two young seductresses who claim to be lost and need to use the phone. So… what sounds like the setup to a purely comedic sex romp, is supposedly a “glorious taboo thriller.”

knock-knock-Reeves

Or is it? The reviews for Knock, Knock aren’t nearly as effusive as those for It Follows and The Witch, but the discord among reviewers makes the film seem promising in a different way. Roth is said to “[add] elegance” to Death Game’s set up, according to Variety. Alternatively, Shock Til You Drop, calls it an exercise in “absurdist psychocomedy” whose psychological torture elements cause it to bend toward tonal disarray as it progresses. While SlashFilm says it’s scary and thrilling, while Eric Walkuski at Joblo called it straight up camp along the lines of Nicholas Cage’s Wicker Man, and says Reeves horribly miscast. (Reeves, for his part, considers the movie to be a “morality tale,” which gives insight into what he thinks of his role and the tone of the film.) So what we potentially have here is an elegant, psycho-comedic horror / thriller slice of camp featuring a star in a role and type of film he’s never been in before, who may or may not be up to the task, and helmed by a director who sees this as film as a professional “turning point.” I’m not saying that adds up to a must-see movie experience, but it definitely has me curious.

Lionsgate is banking on their being people more people like me out there, as they’ve picked up distribution rights for a nice $2.5 million. The Witch was picked up for distribution by A24, and It Follows already has a theatrical and VOD release scheduled for March 27th. So again, that’s three genre flicks for fans to definitely look out for, and that doesn’t even count the Irish creature-feature The Hallow, the Canadian Hellions–set on Halloween–or the horror documentary The Nightmare, none of which received as much fawning or attention as the others, but all of which look pretty interesting in their own right.

While horror, like any other genre, is never at a dearth for subpar fare, there seems to have been a resurgence for more thoughtful, carefully crafted, well executed, and critically acclaimed fright films in the past five years or so. If the early word coming out of Sundance is any indication, 2015 looks to continue that trend.

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Halloween Recommendation: Trick ‘r Treat (The movie, not the activity)

If you haven’t done so, do yourself a favor and pick up Trick ‘r Treat for annual Halloween viewing. It’s a pretty perfect horror love letter to the season of jack-o-lanterns and gratuitously sexy costumes for the ladies.

Anthology horror films are often uneven. One good story here, one or two bad stories there, then one or two middling “could take it or leave it” stories and voila, there’s your film. Trick ‘r Treat doesn’t much suffer from unevenness, in part because all of its stories improbably belong to a shared universe–hell, not even a universe; all these separate Halloween horror hi-jinks happen in the same small town and on the same night–and the movie is cleverly presented in a non-linear fashion. You get a snippet of a story here, a bit more of another one there, then that segues into the third, then eventually we lock in for an extended stretch on one tale or another, see it through to its climax before moving on yet again. Then toward the end there’s a satisfying denouement for everything we’ve witnessed.

I mention the “improbability” of the story’s setting, which is a bit pedantic given that we’re talking about a story heavy on supernatural characters. A lot of people tend to read something like that and think, “why are you complaining about implausibility / realism in a story that features the undead and the literal spirit of Halloween.” Two responses to that: one, even a story with unrealistic creatures and an unrealistic setting has to maintain plausibility within the context of its own rules and the general rules of its genre; two, who says I’m complaining? The ridiculousness of one small town becoming an inadvertent nexus for multiple, very loosely related supernatural occurrences is one of the “invisible” elements of the movie that keeps it fun and ideal for the season, despite going into some very grim subject matter. No half-assed explanations are offered or needed. The comedic elements, soundtrack and performances are move obvious signs that this isn’t designed to be extremely dark or scarring, but the setting and circumstances inform us of the same without calling attention to themselves.

trick r treat posterHere’s a simple breakdown of the vignettes in Trick ‘r Treat: to set the tone, a woman in the opening violates a simple Halloween “tradition” (that I had never heard of before) and pays dearly; the local elementary school’s principal has to deal with backyard body disposal (and a son who’s eager to carve up a jack-o-lantern); a prank based on the legend of a horrible school bus massacre produces even worse results than you’d expect the words “prank” or “legend of a massacre” to produce in a horror flick; a young woman dressed as Red Riding Hood is stalked by a proverbial “wolf” who appears to be a vampire; and finally a curmudgeonly recluse refuses to get into the spirit of the season, and ends up getting tormented by the literal spirit of the season. The Little Red Riding Hood story (starring Anna Paquin) is probably the least of the bunch as a whole–still good, but not in the same class as the others–but it comes with a delightfully insane and audacious payoff. The rest of the stories are all running stride for stride for 1st place. I’d add more detail, but it’s so much better for you to see it for yourself.

As I mentioned in the previous recommendation, Halloween has a unique festiveness to it. It’s a grand masquerade where everyone who wants to participate is invited. It brings with it an understanding that it’s okay to have fun with scary ideas. It’s a release that allows us to be a bit frivolous with even some of the grimmest, darkest ideas imaginable. Atmosphere counts for a lot with any horror story, but especially for suitable Halloween fare. Execution as well. It helps keep the story relatively accessible and fun despite some shit that’s pretty disturbing if you think more than half-a-second about it. Trick ‘r Treat doesn’t pull punches, but it picks you up, brushes you off and offers you a drink after it chins you. I can’t praise it enough.

 

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