Ghost Stories

STREAMING BANNER 2
HULU
Released Apr. 20, 2018
Unrated (equal to R rating for violence, imagery, thematic elements, & language) – 1hr 38min
Directed by Jeremy Dyson & Andy Nyman
Starring Andy Nyman, Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther


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Prof. Philip Goodman (Nyman) has made a career of debunking claims of the supernatural and even hosts a TV show on the subject. He’s contacted by another academic, Dr. Charles Cameron – a fellow skeptic who happens to be his personal hero – who hasn’t much time left to live. The dying man challenges Goodman to debunk three cases that have shaken him to his core, leaving him to question his life’s work. What Goodman discovers may destroy him completely.


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Ghost Stories begins in the style of a mockumentary, but curiously abandons that premise early on, never to revisit it. It then becomes something of an anthology, as the eyewitness accounts of each of Goodman’s subsequent investigations are presented as their own chapters. It then melts into a full-blown reality bender.


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Ghost Stories is based on a critically acclaimed stage play. I’m going to return to that point, but first, I want to discuss video games, which is a normal impulse for me when someone brings up ‘the theater’. Many of the most popular gaming franchises – Grand Theft Auto, Uncharted, Resident Evil, Halo, Assassin’s Creed, etc. – have achieved their success largely by translating the thrills and excitement of cinema into an interactive adventure. However, they tend to borrow heavily from the world of movies in regards to crafting their narratives. This becomes extremely obvious when these game properties are adapted into the static, non-interactive world of films. They’re often regarded as dull and derivative – the action fails to have the intensity enjoyed in the games and the lack of originality in the storytelling then shines through. Now, Ghost Stories, as a stage play, was heralded for being able to cleverly translate horror movie tropes into a chilling theatrical experience. So, it is my opinion that it suffered the same dynamic as the video game adaptations on its way to the screen.

The movie does have a lot going its way. The acting is top-notch, particularly that of the three characters at the center of each investigation (and especially that of Alex Lawther as a chronically nervous and irresponsible wreck of a young man). Co-writer/director Nyman does a fine job in the lead role too, but his job is mostly to react and push things forward. Likewise, the pacing isn’t the issue here either, with the film chugging along at a satisfactory clip. The award-nominated musical score, composed by Haim Frank Ilfman, is also notable (so much so that there are a couple quiet contemplative moments in Ghost Stories that are frankly overwhelmed by the audacious swelling of orchestral strings). The atmosphere is generally on point – both creepy and cryptic, begging the question of how the whole thing is going to come together in the end.

Yet, it all still manages to go wrong. The build-ups to the big scares are enjoyable, but the payoffs consistently fall flat. Many of the big horror moments in Ghost Stories seem generously borrowed from other films – Lights Out, the Evil Dead series, Mama, and The Conjuring, to name a few. Aside from a couple instances of haunting imagery, it didn’t stick a single landing on any of its attempts. The greatest fizzle is in the final reveal itself which, in its eagerness to blow minds, scuttles everything that came before it. It’s so bold that it can only be interpreted as brilliance or garbage, and I fell into the latter group. I can’t say that it came from nowhere though, because the foreshadowing throughout is so upfront that there’s just no denying that a twist ending lies in wait.

So, my presumption is that Ghost Stories worked great when performed on the stage. It would be pretty amazing to see the modern horror movie translated into something that plays out tangibly right in front of the audience. However, in adapting that experience back to the screen, those visceral thrills are lost – just like with the video games that have been turned into movies. What was fresh and exciting in one format transforms into a slog when it’s forced to expose its core elements as used hand-me-downs.

With everything it gets right, it seems wrong to be so harsh on this film, but when it goes wrong, it’s consistently at the most crucial moments. That made for an unenjoyable time. I could possibly recommend it to someone who typically enjoys big twist endings no matter what, but that’s an excessively specific group. Otherwise, it was a disappointing waste of high-quality components and great potential.

Ghost Stories gets a rating of
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Extraordinary Tales

STREAMING BANNER 2
NETFLIXHOOPLA
Released Oct. 23, 2015
Unrated (equal to PG-13 for mild violence, disturbing imagery, thematic elements, and brief nudity – all animated) – 1hr 13min
Directed by Raul Garcia
Voice acting by Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi, Julian Sands, Guillermo del Toro, Roger Corman


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An animated anthology of some of Edgar Allen Poe’s greatest stories – The Fall of the House of Usher, The Tell-tale Heart, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, The Pit and the Pendulum, & The Masque of the Red Death. They are thread together by a story of Poe himself in the embodiment of a raven debating the nature of his life and work with none other than Death, taking the form of a graveyard statue.


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Each chapter of Extraordinary Tales is animated in a different style and narrated by a different horror icon (with the exception of Masque where legendary producer and director Roger Corman supplies the voice of Prince Prospero – it is otherwise entirely visual). While each segment may switch up its presentation with changes in artistic appearance and narration, they are firmly threaded together by the distinctive literary voice and dark themes of Poe.


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I’ve read a lot of Edgar Allen Poe, so I was pretty excited about Extraordinary Tales. As an author celebrated generally for his short stories, his work is really difficult to adapt to feature-length without a screenwriter taking considerable liberties with their own additions and elaborations, and those who have tried generally didn’t fare so well, to be generous. Much of the essence of Poe’s work is found in the grim poetry of his words, so an anthology that retains those words while accommodating the naturally brief nature of the tales themselves seems like an ideal way to go.

It’s all in the execution, of course. First off, the artwork here is mostly fantastic. House of Usher features a kind of gothic Disney vibe. The Tell-tale Heart is presented in a bold monochromatic style, inspired by famous Argentine artist Alberto Breccia. Case of M. Valdemar goes with a graphic novel aesthetic that resembles EC Comics like Tales from the Crypt. With The Pit and the Pendulum, we get that photo-realistic performance capture look popularized by director Robert Zemeckis in films like Beowulf and The Polar Express (with the same dead-face problem that those movies had, but it’s not much of an issue here). Finally, The Masque of the Red Death takes on the appearance of an oil painting come to life in its depiction of decadent hedonism amidst a horrible plague. Much of this movie is pure eye candy, and that’s not a complaint, but the wraparound segment stands out as a disappointment, visually and otherwise. It looks rushed in comparison to the rest of the entries and I suspect it was something of an afterthought in the film’s production. It certainly comes across as such.

The voice acting in Extraordinary Tales exhibits high highs and low lows. Sir Christopher Lee, in his final role, is as excellent as expected in his telling of House of Usher. His voice was among the most famous in the cinematic world, with its resounding baritone and authoritative enunciation, and it’s a perfect match for the gothic horror of Poe. Guillermo del Toro nails it as The Pit and the Pendulum’s tortured prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition and Julian Sands does a fine job, particularly with the dialogue, in Case of M. Valdemar.

However, as awesome of an idea as it was to utilize an unreleased recording of the late great Bela Lugosi, the original Dracula himself, for The Tell-tale Heart, that recording is totally unmastered – full of the pops, clicks, and hisses you would expect from a 1930s audio sample. Purists call these ‘audio artifacts’ – I found it to be extremely distracting and ultimately detrimental to both the sentiment behind the use of the recording and the segment as a whole. Lastly, while The Masque of the Red Death is presented without narration, there is one key piece of dialogue for which Roger Corman, legendary producer and director of multiple Poe adaptations in the 1960s, is stunt-casted to speak. The line is supposed to be powerful, full of indignant rage, and he delivers it with the mild irritation of someone whose lunch was interrupted by a phone call. Again, like with the Lugosi recording, I appreciate what the filmmakers were going for here, but it just didn’t work. In trying to pay homage to too many things in too many ways all at once, the final result is somewhat compromised.

Anthologies tend to be uneven works, but I was surprised that here, with the same creative team adapting stories from the same author, it would still be the case. Usher and Masque, in particular, felt abbreviated to the point of being perhaps incoherent to anyone not already familiar with those stories. On the other hand, Valdemar and, the film’s standout, Pendulum were fantastic adaptations. Those, along with Lee’s voice work and the artistic style of Tell-tale Heart, make the film worthwhile. You can fast-forward through the wraparound parts though, unless you really want to see a raven that’s supposed to be Edgar Allen Poe speak with the voice of a guy that sounds more like an insurance salesman.

Extraordinary Tales gets a rating of
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Unsane

STREAMING BANNER
Amazon-Instant-Video
Released Mar. 23, 2018
Rated R – 1hr 38min
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple


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Sawyer Valentini (Foy) is a successful and ambitious business analyst with a tough-as-nails persona on the outside, but inside, she’s plagued by constant anxiety and depression following a traumatic stalking by a relentless admirer, David (Leonard). When she seeks counseling for her issues, she is conned by an unscrupulous treatment facility into consenting to ‘observation’. Locked inside with no means of escape, her nightmare only worsens when a new orderly named George is a spitting image of her psycho stalker.


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Unsane is quite the determined horror/thriller, attempting to tackle many weighty themes and showcase numerous genre styles in its sparse runtime. At different times, it’s a reality-bender, a suspense thriller, a slasher flick, a character drama, a detective mystery, a police procedural, an indictment of modern American healthcare, and an allegory of the issues found within the MeToo movement. That’s an awful lot of hats to wear.


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It’s a hot mess – how could it not be? With so many thematic elements in the air, each progressive scene and plot point often works toward a different goal. They are woven together well enough to keep the extremely busy story out of the realm of incoherence – and that’s something of an accomplishment in itself – but there are times when Unsane feels like a movie that collided into a completely different film of another genre already in progress, and the result can be jarring and disorienting.

So, I suppose it’s a silver lining that this movie wants to jar and disorient you. Sawyer’s sudden captivity into a world of mental patients and jaded orderlies is like an update of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but without any of its mischievous whimsy. Every protest or lamentation on her part worsens her treatment which deteriorates her condition leading to greater protests and lamentations. She’s sent on a maddening downward spiral by the greed of a facility that preaches its purpose as one of healing, and that irony is one of the cornerstones of Unsane.

That premise, in and of itself, would have served for a profoundly uncomfortable experience, but this film is keen on packing in more. Sawyer wouldn’t be in this situation if not for the trauma experienced at the whims of an obsessive man who pursued her as if he were tracking down a prized possession. His increasingly intrusive and aggressive overtures as he grew more desperate and enraged from her repeated denials led her to uproot hundreds of miles from home to start her life over again. If Unsane has a thread that runs throughout, it’s that of greed – the callous malevolence that can be inspired when an insatiable something – be it a corporate entity or a self-centered man – is confronted with attempts to deny them their wishes. Here, in Sawyer, we have a character that, however unlikely, is on the wrong end of both simultaneously.

That’s where things do get wonky. As Unsane approaches the home stretch, it has a lot of plot to resolve, so it gets down to business very quickly. To get it all done, it’s forced to branch off into two separate movies, both of which are different in tone from what has proceeded it. One of those still follows Sawyer, but the other involves auxiliary characters that we’re not much invested in who have been, until that point, on the far edges of the plot. It’s an odd choice for sure, and not entirely successful in sticking the landing.

Despite its flaws, Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh possesses the grasp of a sure-handed auteur whose head is still in the game. Many filmmakers tend to be in decline after 30 years and nearly 30 movies, but it appears he keeps himself fresh. With Unsane, he’s made a Hollywood-caliber thriller with a budget of barely over $1 million shot entirely on an iPhone (you did read that last bit correctly). It manages to look great, so he did his part. Another highlight is Claire Foy, who is fantastic as the fierce and cunning yet tormented Sawyer. She’s clearly a rising star and an obvious pick for the role of Lisbeth Salander in the upcoming continuation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. Also, Joshua Leonard as David/George has come a long way since The Blair Witch Project (he’s the guy that didn’t kick the fucking map into the creek). He approaches his villainous role like that of a wounded creature, both pathetic and very dangerous, and the scenes between him and Foy exude all the tension necessary to float the scatterbrained concept to a place that is higher than it might have landed with less capable actors.

So the problem with Unsane isn’t that it doesn’t have all its marbles, but that it has too many of them. A more economic script that didn’t strive to do so much so quickly may have led to a tighter and more fulfilling feature. It’s certainly not bad – it’s actually pretty good – but it can occasionally frustrate with glimpses of a greater movie within it.

Unsane gets a rating of
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Chopping Mall

STREAMING BANNER 2
Amazon-Instant-VideoHOOPLATUBI TV
Released Mar. 21, 1986
Rated R – 1hr 17 min
Directed by Jim Wynorski
Starring Kelli Maroney, Barbara Crampton, Tony O’Dell


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A shopping mall installs a state-of-the-art security system, complete with three automated robots and steel shutters that seal the place tight from midnight to sunrise. On the first night of operation, an electrical storm shorts out the rooftop control unit, turning the security droids into haywire killbots. Meanwhile, four young couples have arranged an after-hours party at the furniture store. You see where this is going.


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Made at a time when that decade’s iconic cultural elements were at their peak, Chopping Mall is 80s as fuck. Only the lack of a pop soundtrack keeps it from full overload. We got big hair, clunky robots, automatic firearms, boobs, cigarette machines, unexplained lasers, exploding heads, the guy who won’t stop chewing gum, digital calculators, neon signs, and corny one-liners, among other things, not least of all being the setting. If that doesn’t make it sound like there’s fun to be had, you can just turn back now.


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I’ve seen many hundreds if not several thousand horror movies in my life, and Chopping Mall is one that always managed to get past me. It was one of those boxes at the video rental store that really stood out, with its shopping bag full of body parts and its snappy title, but my mom just wasn’t enthused about getting it for me. Can’t imagine why. Over the years, I never managed to stumble upon it again – never saw it on cable and it never caught my attention during my DVD collecting days. That is until I was browsing through the Hoopla library, and there it was. It was time to watch what I had been assured was a lost 80’s classic.

Classic is definitely a reach with this one, but it certainly qualifies as overlooked. It’s a check-your-brain-at-the-door good time, but that’s 80’s horror in a nutshell anyway. The plot is ridiculous twice over – it’s not just the outlandish premise, but how seriously Chopping Mall takes its killer mall robots. There’s no meta self-awareness or sense of irony here. This ain’t Sharknado. Now, while it might be earnest, that’s not to say that it’s somehow grim. This movie’s still here to party – it just approaches partying as serious business.

The acting is decent enough to not be bad, which helps to tether this preposterous thing to reality. Kelli Maroney, the cheerleader from Night of the Comet, is actually pretty good as resourceful final girl Alison. Genre favorite Barbara Crampton is simply in generic scream queen mode with her supporting role. Dick Miller – Mr. Futterman from the Gremlins movies – has a small role doing the same surly blue-collar shtick here too. There’s a bizarre couple – played by Paul Bartel & Mary Woronov – in the opening sequence that I found to be completely baffling. Apparently, they were reprising their roles from a film called Eating Raoul – which I’ve heard of but have never seen – but I couldn’t tell you why they’re here. They have no bearing on anything and are never seen again. It’s an odd thing to include, but so are killer mall robots that shoot lasers from their eyes.

As far as B-movie horror flicks from that decade are concerned, Chopping Mall is above average, if only just barely. It’s silly enough to be notably amusing, but is benefited from capable direction and playing its absurdity with a straight face. Yeah, it has what can be considered some throwback values, but this was over 30 years ago – that’s how looking backward tends to work. Those elements can potentially stir up a hornet’s nest of a cultural conversation, but it’s also not 1986 anymore. They make for an extra layer of humor that didn’t initially exist, and that’s good enough for me.

So, to anyone who gets a silly grin or a warm sense of nostalgia when they think of the 80’s, seek this out if you haven’t seen it. If not, steer clear – this is likely too cheesy for your palette.

Chopping Mall gets a rating of
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Seven in Heaven

STREAMING BANNER
NETFLIX
Released Oct. 5, 2018
Rated PG-13 – 1hr 34min
Directed by Chris Eigeman
Starring Travis Tope, Haley Ramm, Gary Cole, Jacinda Barrett


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While at a keggar, Jude (Tope) and June (Ramm) are picked to play the game Seven Minutes in Heaven, where a random couple go into a closet to maybe make out, maybe not. Jude and June don’t, as they’re not particularly fond of each other, but when they emerge, they find themselves in a different but similar reality – one where people are much more hostile, their friends hate them, and Jude is a wanted killer.


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Seven in Heaven is an odd sci-fi/horror film that amplifies awkward situations to generate tension and dread. It very much plays by its own rules and while the type of story it tells is pretty standard fare, the way it goes about it is as unique as it is bizarre.


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Seven in Heaven plays like a movie that might have been written by some kind of artificial intelligence that is approximating teen life in the American suburbs after being fed a steady stream of parenting blogs. This is one of 21 films that genre mega-producer Jason Blum has slapped his name on so far this year, and while I know he’s got some deep pockets, that would be a pretty bold experiment. Joking aside, this is a weird-ass flick. I get that it’s supposed to be, as the protagonists travel through a number of alternate realities (that number is two, by the way) that are intended to be alarming in their subtle yet apparent differences.

Yet, their home universe is strange too. Characters say and do vaguely peculiar things and react, or don’t react, to events in ways that are quietly unnerving. Intentional or not, Seven in Heaven is an exercise in the uncanny valley – the phenomenon where things are almost realistic but aren’t, and that small differential becomes profoundly disturbing. If this were a comedy or straight-up drama, it would be extremely cringey, but in horror? Well, it works to some degree because it fucked up my head a bit.

As such, it’s difficult to even get a read on the acting in this film. For the most part, everyone is some kind of Stepford person – an obvious imitation of an actual human being, not unlike the ‘sunken’ characters in Get Out – and this is regardless of which universe they’re in. This applies to the two main characters as well, and they’re supposed to be the same throughout. Seven in Heaven gave me flashbacks to Wes Craven’s My Soul to Take, which likewise had inexplicably alien people living in a perplexing bizarro world, but that endeavor was embarrassingly unintentional and I’m not entirely certain that’s the case here. Also, the dialogue here is nowhere near as tone-deaf as Soul, but it’s still off-key.

The important question is though, ‘Was it a good movie?’ I don’t think it was. Not horrible, but I’m not sure who I would recommend it to. I guess there’s a context where Seven in Heaven works well as some kind of puzzling allegory about teenage social struggles, but that might be a reach. Or maybe you can watch it to let me know if it’s really as weird as I thought it was, because I’m still confused about it. I’m fairly positive that it didn’t make any sense on top of my earlier complaints. If it was purposefully made to be this wonky, than it deserves a higher grade, but I suspect it wasn’t, so…

Seven in Heaven gets a rating of
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Prodigy

STREAMING BANNER
NETFLIX
Released Mar. 13, 2018
Unrated (equal to PG-13 for violence, thematic elements, and language) – 1hr 20min
Directed by Alex Haughey & Brian Vidal
Starring Richard Neil, Savannah Liles, Jolene Andersen


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Child psychologist James Fonda (Neil) is brought in as a consultant for a government project by an old associate (Andersen). He is caught completely off guard by his new assignment – to counsel and evaluate a sociopathic super-genius child named Ellie (Liles) who is handled as if she is a monster. How dangerous can this little girl possibly be?…


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80% of the action in Prodigy is actually dialogue, mostly as a battle of wits between an unorthodox doctor and an extraordinary & antagonistic patient. Think the Starling and Lector scenes in Silence of the Lambs if Hannibal were a narcissistic kid.


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It’s rightfully debatable whether Prodigy even qualifies as a horror film. First off, it’s bloodless (not to be confused with a complete lack of violence though) and that’s virtually unheard of within the modern movies of the genre. My opinion is that gore, while quite common, is not an absolute essential to horror – it’s often relied upon to generate reactions of dread or disgust, but there are both other methods and other reactions that exist within the spectrum of fear. Second, while there are a few big things that happen, much of the story of Prodigy progresses through the mechanics of psychological analysis as opposed to the more direct struggles for survival that typically serve as the anchors for horror. That doesn’t mean that the film generates no suspense or anxiety – in fact, it’s very well established that Ellie is ridiculously dangerous and we have a protagonist that may not fully appreciate that this session is a tightrope walk that could literally kill him. So I’m calling it as horror.

And as horror, its very conservative approach has an unmistakable throwback quality to it. Take the setting back sixty years, slap some black-and-white and film grain over it, throw Jimmy Stewart into the lead role, and with more imaginative camera work, you could call it a lost Hitchcock classic. I’m genuinely surprised that I can’t say that my overstimulated 21st-century brain was bored to tears by Prodigy – in fact, the story unfolds at a very satisfactory pace, despite how extremely talky it is. Bringing it in at a lean 80 minutes was also a good call. The film never stops to brood or linger and doesn’t get too hung up on any secondary details along the way. It gets down to business, and that’s a quality I frequently tend to like.

Given how sparse the proceedings are here, Prodigy would utterly fail if either of its two principal leads weren’t up to the task, but good news, they are. Savannah Liles as Ellie gives a performance that warrants a mention among the best ‘evil kid’ roles. Despite differences that become increasingly obvious as the movie moves forward, she very much invokes the spirit of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector (and it’s not well-hidden that the character was a huge influence here). You don’t know whether to love her or hate her, even when she’s spouting off wickedly vainglorious insults or wildly gruesome answers to inkblot tests to the woefully underprepared Dr. Fonda, and she keeps you off-balanced throughout. Richard Neil, as said doctor, brings a scruffy underdog charm as Ellie’s unexpectedly cunning adversary. There is something notably peculiar about his line delivery, especially early on, which led me to discover that he’s a rather prolific voice actor, which resolved my issues. He just has one of those golden voices that make him sound like he’s constantly narrating a documentary or reading an audiobook, so no points against him. The rest of the supporting cast are OK enough to not detract from the main event.

Chess is a major theme in this film, and like the game, the movie very much values strategy over action. If that has no appeal to you, then there’s nothing for you here – it’s not some revolutionary experience that is going to change your perspective on such matters. However, if you’re intrigued, you’ll likely find it to be rewarding – a rare exercise in cerebral and minimalist horror that still succeeds in telling a coherent and compelling story.

Prodigy gets a rating of
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Halloween (2018)

Released Oct. 19, 2018
Rated R – 1hr 46min
Directed by David Gordon Green
Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak


what_it_is_review_header
Forty years after the infamous Babysitter Murders devastated the town of Haddonfield, the killer – Michael Myers – is being transferred to a lesser facility after decades of silence and docility. He escapes to continue his obsessive-compulsive killing spree, seeking out the one who got away, Laurie Strode (Curtis), but she has spent her entire adult life waiting and preparing for this day. What she doesn’t count on is that her granddaughter Allyson (Matichak) will wind up in his path.


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David Gordon Green’s Halloween is absolute fan service, wrapped up in a bloody package and delivered with a smile. It’s everything one could reasonably ask for from an entry in this vaunted horror series


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There’s no doubt about it – the classic iteration of Michael Myers is back, crashing through the door of pop culture in the way he’s prone to do. It’s all here – the forboding atmosphere, the suspense, the clever callbacks to previous films, the nebulous and destructive evil of The Shape, the distinctive and amazing musical scoring of John Carpenter, and once again, the return of the franchise’s most beloved survivor, back from the dead and everything. As a lifelong Halloween fan, I should have been doing cartwheels of joy out of the theater, but instead, I was left both satisfied and somewhat bothered.

Let’s begin with the concept. Every single movie but the original has been wiped clean from the slate to set up the plot for this outing. That’s fair enough and not particularly difficult to accept once the film starts rolling, but I personally would have still left 1981’s Halloween II in the mix. It would have upped the stakes substantially, considering how much more carnage Michael committed there, yet I suppose we’re being asked to accept a situation where many have forgotten how potentially and phenomenally dangerous he really is. Still though, it’s somewhat jarring to need to forget so much backstory – especially when it’s actively provoking memories of those entries as it goes along. Certainly forgivable, but a bit awkward and it never quite shakes off that bizarro world undercurrent.

Also, Michael Myers is one lucky son of a bitch. All he does is wander, stalk, and kill, yet fortune forever smiles down upon his efforts as he coincidentally encounters everything and everyone he needs in order to suit up, recover his iconic mask, and be led on the trail of his most elusive prey, without once doing a single Google search. As we enter the climactic third act, this reliance on plot convenience has something of a shark-jumping moment that flirts heavily with the absurd and it was difficult to really get back into it when the story is reaching its zenith point.

That point is still good, however. Michael’s inevitable confrontation with three generations of Strodes, all of whose lives he’s impacted through his remorseless deeds in one way or another, is a rightful highlight of Halloween. It’s too brief and, to be honest, H20 already walked down this very same path before and did it better, but it’s still good. That may very well be the Achilles heel of this update – there’s so much to compare it to and while it does most things well, there’s many instances where those things have already been done better within the same series.

I don’t want to get too negative on Halloween 2018 though. Jamie Lee Curtis is fantastic as Laurie Strode, Survivalist Grandma. Not unlike Sarah Conner of the Terminator series, her traumatic encounter left her hardened and paranoid, costing her a healthy relationship with her daughter Karen, played by Judy Greer in an adequate if unnotable performance. Andi Matichak is charismatic as Laurie’s granddaughter through whom Laurie is attempting to reconcile her past mistakes – she might be the best among the three alternate universes of Laurie Strode descendants and is a name to watch out for in the future.

Director David Gordon Green aims to amuse, for the most part, with invoking the vibe of numerous predecessors – even Rob Zombie’s adaptation with a particularly brutal sequence set in a gas station. He does, however, establish some awesome set pieces of his own – the best involving a single unbroken 5-minute tracking shot of Myers hitting the neighborhood for the first time; to his credit, it’s one of the very best and most chilling sequences from all 11 movies. Additionally, the dialogue is witty and on point throughout and, although I already mentioned it, the updated score from the master of musical menace John Carpenter is as integral to the character of Michael Myers as is his trademark mask.

Ultimately, this iteration of Halloween is neither the all-time best of the series or the best since the original. It is extremely solid though, despite its story that wobbles with many an unlikely circumstance and a final confrontation that is over a bit too quickly. It’s firmly in the top half of the franchise and a welcome return of the series after a lengthy 9-year absence (16 years if you’re inclined to disown the Zombie interpretations and 20 if you furthermore ignore the abysmal Resurrection). This may very well be the end of the road for the original Michael Myers, and as such, it serves as a worthy send-off for the legendary villain. Despite the unforeseen return, he’s likely headed back out to the reboot pasture again, so it’s wise for fans to soak this one in while it’s new.

Halloween gets a rating of
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Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil

STREAMING BANNER
NETFLIX

Released Oct. 12, 2018
Language: Basque
Unrated (equal to R rating for violence, imagery, thematic elements, and language)
Directed by Paul Urkijo Alijo
Starring Kandido Uranga, Uma Bracaglia, Eneko Sagardoy


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Set in the Basque region of Spain, a government official arrives in a sleepy village still reeling in the aftermath of a civil war. He is in search of a blacksmith (Uranga) who allegedly absconded years earlier with a fortune of ill-gotten gold. Meanwhile, young orphan and local misfit Usue (Bracaglia) has the head of her beloved doll ripped off by bullies and thrown over the wall of the blacksmith’s forbidding makeshift fortress. These two sets of circumstances will collide to expose the fearsome blacksmith both to the horrors that he hides from and those he keeps trapped within.


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Errementari is a very visually ambitious film with a fairly straightforward narrative that still somehow manages to surprise. It stands strongly in a very small niche of dark folk fantasy/horror.


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This film is fascinating for a number of reasons, not least of all being the language and culture of the enigmatic psuedo-nation in which it is filmed. Americans like myself tend to know very little about The Basque, the region of northern Spain that has a very distinctive identity all its own and has reared its head numerous times in fierce and violent separatist movements. About all we know of the area is the famous Running of the Bulls, held in the city of Pamplona during the Festival of San Fermín, which we incorrectly attribute to being a particularly Spanish thing. While matters have settled down over the last decade or so, the region has been notable for its embrace of its Christian traditions, a distaste for liberal politics, and a desire for greater self-governance. It’s like I’m talking about Texas. Anyway, I mention these things because Errementari possesses a very unique tone that is partly attributable to the history, native tongue, and culture of The Basque. In fact, it is only the second horror movie ever filmed in the Basque language and the first to be released here in the States.

Not that it is somehow unprecedented, this movie does have some notable influences. The first and most obvious would be Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro’s masterwork that likewise juxtaposed a layer of dark fantasy on top of the ravages of war. Here, however, the war isn’t ongoing but a bad memory that its characters are trying to keep buried, and consequently, that’s a central theme of the film. Also, the fantasy of Errementari has no root in fairy tales but instead in the imagery and ideology of medieval notions of Christian Hell – complete with red-skinned, pitchfork-wielding imps for demons who are way more hideous than old-timey cartoons would lead me to believe. When it comes to the creature design here, think more Ridley Scott’s own take on dark fantasy, Legend. Further, the design of the blacksmith’s abode and the look of the village may owe a nod toward Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow and there’s just the slightest hint of the kind of absurdist whimsy found in many of Terry Gilliam’s works. That’s a pretty fantastic list to draw from and these aren’t the kind of movies we get to see too often, yet Errementari still feels somehow different.

Oftentimes, it’s grey, grim, and grimy – many of the characters are miserable and the blacksmith’s fortress, in particular, is an imposing and chaotic nightmare – filthy, disorganized, and covered in giant iron spikes and misshapen homemade crosses. For additional reasons I won’t spoil, the place is clearly designed to keep things both out and in – it’s something of a triumph of set design when a location becomes its own character. The ramshackle village and its church – the only structure that appears to be receiving any proper maintenance – further contribute to a sense of immersion not unlike a video game. There were times I got some strong Elder Scrolls vibes in Errementari and I mean that as high praise.

The acting, particularly of its three leads, is great as well. The morality at play in the film is definitely a grey one and many of the characters have both unflattering and redemptive moments alike. Instead of bogging things down, they come across as relatably flawed and human and the fantastic script co-written by director Paul Urkijo Alijo deserves some thanks in that regard as well. His is a name I’m going to be watching out for in the future, for his sense of style is an amalgamation of many of my all-time favorite directors but with a distinct flair that’s his own. It’s difficult to believe that this is his debut feature.

I’ve been heaping praise on the movie this whole time – now for a serious nitpick. It’s not even technically the film’s fault, but it’s a glaring issue. The subtitles here are a literal translation from Basque, which leads to a number of instances where culturally unique phrases and idioms were used that seemed either clunky or nonsensical to me. The dubbed version, on the other hand, used an interpretive script for the dialogue, making sense to my American ears but employing substantially inferior voice acting. I went with subs, but had to rewind and rewatch in dubs in several spots, most notably on the final pivotal line of the film. That really irked me, and I don’t know if Netflix takes the blame or the film’s producers. Unfortunately, that’s going to be a dealbreaker for quite a few people. There’s also a major plot device involving the role of chickpeas in the folklore of the region – that’s not a complaint, but a heads-up so it doesn’t catch you off-guard like it did to me. When it comes up, just run with it.

Ultimately, Errementari is the best horror movie of the year thus far (a status that is immediately in danger as I’m reviewing the new and highly praised Halloween movie tomorrow). Alijo has presented here a world that I eagerly want to see more of. There was more yet I wanted to cover here, but I think I got the point across that I really liked it.

Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil gets a rating of
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Review Roundup #3

That’s 27 reviews, 5 weeks of daily posts, and over 100 pages of text written so far for Terror Spective – not too shabby. A special thank you to those who have been reading regularly. This is an ad-free, revenue-free, hobby kind of thing, so if nobody was checking it out, there really wouldn’t be any incentive to it at all. In the first month and with no promotional budget, there was nearly 200 visitors from 10 different countries, and I’m willing to bet that at least half weren’t sniffing around to see if there was anything worth hacking. I would really like to get into some horror television in the future – The Haunting of Hill House is burning a hole in my Netflix queue at the moment – but the movies keep me plenty occupied, and so, that’s where the focus will remain. There will very likely be a site redesign in the near future, some time after Halloween, which might take several REVIEW RUBRICdays to complete, but that’s quite enough navel-gazing for now – here’s a quick recap of my review process. I look at premise, story, characters, pacing, visuals, acting, atmosphere, effects, musical score, and the presence and quality of what can just be called ‘horror elements’ – I don’t score each category individually, just weigh them all out against what the premise seems to need and crunch it all into a letter grade.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be reviewing the much-anticipated new Halloween movie, a stylish medieval horror film from the Basque region of Spain, and maybe a couple of older films for the hell of it. Also, I’ll be trying out a new feature this week – Under The Radar – highlighting an upcoming movie that looks promising but isn’t getting much attention.


Intruders – 2016 – Grade: B+

INTRUDERSAvailable on Amazon Prime Video. Anna suffers from intense agoraphobia and has not ventured outside her sprawling home in ten years. In the meanwhile, she has been caring for her terminally ill brother, who finally succumbs to his pancreatic cancer. During his funeral, a group of career criminals break into the home, expecting it to be empty, only to find Anna, who had been too terrified to leave even then. They think their greatest problem is figuring out what to do with her, completely unaware of what she might be capable of doing to them. Full review here.


The Endless – 2018 – Grade: B

THE ENDLESSAvailable on Netflix. Brothers Justin and Aaron are scraping a meager Raman-eating existence as housecleaners after having escaped from a suicide cult ten years earlier. One day, they receive a tape in the mail from their old ‘religious affiliation’, inviting them back to visit. Although Justin wants nothing to do with this, Aaron is miserable in the impoverished workaday life they lead, and convinces his older bro to oblige him with a return to the camp. As Justin had feared, they might not be able to escape a second time. Full review here.


The Strangers: Prey at Night – 2018 – Grade: B-

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v80), quality = 80Available on Amazon Prime Video. The long-awaited sequel to 2008’s The Strangers, a family of four intend on staying the night at a secluded mobile home campground. The film’s titular psychopaths intend that the family does not survive until morning. Full review here.


Delirium – 2018 – Grade: C+

kinopoisk.ruAvailable on Netflix. Tom has spent the last twenty years in a mental institution, after witnessing and being implicated as an accomplice in his brother’s murderous deeds. Inheriting the estate of his wealthy late father, he’s released onto 30 days of house arrest, under the cruelly watchful eye of a parole officer. Unallowed to leave the premises for a month, he attempts to move on and build a life, but the sins of the past may not be so accommodating. Full review here.


Apostle – 2018 – Grade: C

APOSTLEAvailable on Netflix. The year is 1905 and a strung-out junkie is recruited by his estranged father to recover his beloved sister who has been kidnapped and is being ransomed by a sinister cult entrenched on a remote island. Plagued by withdrawl and haunted by a tragic past, he must keep himself together as he goes undercover as a new initiate to devise some means of rescuing her before it’s too late. Full review here.


We Go On – 2017 – Grade: C

WE GO ONAvailable on Shudder. Compulsive phobic Miles Grissom places an ad in the newspaper offering $30,000 to anyone who can offer him compelling evidence of an afterlife to assuage his crippling fear of death. It attracts a lot of attention, especially from his own mother, who moves back in with him perceiving him to be in the middle of a nervous breakdown. Together, they begin to sift through the numerous proposals he’s received, an endeavor that may lead to the ruin of them both. Full review here.


Pyewacket – 2018 – Grade: C

PYEWACKETAvailable on Hulu. An angsty teenage girl, Leah, is extremely upset with her mother after she abruptly uproots their lives and moves them out to the boonies. After having her difficulties with the change trivialized and her life choices criticized, she is compelled to perform an occult ritual to curse her mother as retribution (damn, she ain’t one to piss off). As increasingly odd things begin to occur in their new home, she is filled with regret and must find a way to undo what she did, because demons don’t make takebacks easy. Full review here.


Malevolent – 2018 – Grade: C-

MALEVOLENTAvailable on Netflix. The year is 1986 and two American siblings have moved to Scotland – their late mother’s homeland – and are trying to make some cash with an elaborate paranormal investigation con job that promises to exorcise spirits from people’s homes. Problem is that the sister, Angela, is actually starting to see ghosts, throwing off her brother Jackson’s well-scripted routines. When an old woman, whose own son brutally murdered her three adopted daughters many years earlier, calls them out to her sprawling, decaying estate, Jackson sees big money in the opportunity, but Angela senses big trouble. Guess who’s right? Full review here.


Head – 2018 – Grade: F

HEADAvailable on Amazon Prime Video. Five college students go on a camping trip, unknowingly choosing the location where a massacre of campers occurred years earlier. When they find their vehicles have been disabled, they’ll join up with an investigative reporter in an effort to keep their heads (most won’t). Full review here.


Pyewacket

STREAMING BANNER
HULU
Released Mar. 23, 2018
Unrated (equivalent to R rating for violence, horror imagery, and language – 1hr 28min
Directed by Adam MacDonald
Starring Nicole Muñoz, Laurie Holden, Chloe Rose


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An angsty teenage girl, Leah (Muñoz), is extremely upset with her mother (Holden) after she abruptly uproots their lives and moves them out to the boonies. After having her difficulties with the change trivialized and her life choices criticized, she is compelled to perform an occult ritual to curse her mother as retribution (damn, she ain’t one to piss off). As increasingly odd things begin to occur in their new home, she is filled with regret and must find a way to undo what she did, because demons don’t make takebacks easy.


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The slowburn horror/family drama hybrid seems to be a rather popular format right now, and this is one of those. Many of the scares on hand here are suggested, auditory, or psychological in nature.


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My biggest concern with Pyewacket was how it was going to manage centering its entire premise on such an unsympathetic act without making either the daughter or the mother look like monsters or fools. The film’s biggest accomplishment is that it mostly pulls the pivotal curse off in a way that resembles something reasonable. They’re both struggling with grief, but mom has made a bad habit of taking her frustrations out on her daughter, despite the fact that her lost husband is also Leah’s lost father. Leah has turned to heavy metal and an interest in the occult to help her cope, and when mom really digs in deep while her daughter is feeling especially low, Leah has had enough and breaks out the ‘murder mom with demons’ kit that, interestingly enough, she had already pre-assembled. They’re both pretty miserable to be around – but mom considerably more so – and while it’s still a bit of a stretch, Pyewacket succeeds to stick the landing on its biggest plot device, preventing the film from being utterly ridiculous.

With its most fundamental element accounted for, how does the rest of the movie fare? It’s something of a mixed bag. Muñoz and Holden both put forth authentic performances as the dysfunctional family unit broken by tragedy. Muñoz, in particular, has a lot of scenes to carry on her own and she does well with them, making her a name to watch in the future. It’s a small supporting cast here, and only Chloe Rose (who starred in the extremely underrated Hellions) as Leah’s bestie Janice has any heavy lifting to do. The direction is pretty decent – Adam MacDonald turns in a fairly workmanlike effort, but as he demonstrated with his previous film Backcountry (a relentless grizzly stalks a young couple on a camping trip), he knows how to make a forest feel ominous and uninviting, and that plays into the atmosphere of Pyewacket.

However, as mentioned earlier, this film is a slowburn effort, and it remains committed to that concept. That’s not a complaint in itself, but there comes a point where something more direct would be greatly appreciated – where the premise demands some kind of solid confrontation with the dark forces swirling around the background – and Pyewacket still plays it low and slow. By steadfastly avoiding cheap thrills, the movie starts avoiding thrills altogether – spooky sounds might be effective early on, but not so much when the film is heading into the home stretch. Once we get our climactic reveal of the demon, things fizzle out quickly – with the exception of a brief but super-creepy moment, the whole thing lands with a dull thud. It doesn’t help that Leah falls to pieces faster than a drunk with a jigsaw puzzle and that the conclusion, apparently intending to shock, is telegraphed pretty thoroughly in advance, turning the third act into a march toward the inevitable instead of a suspenseful ride.

Ultimately, Pyewacket handles its dramatic elements more effectively than its horror ones. While the movie mostly works as a multi-moral fable about being careful what you wish for, understanding that some words can’t be taken back once spoken, and not taking loved ones for granted, it also proves that restraint in horror filmmaking can be overused. There’s no shame in the obvious and straightforward option when that’s what would prove to be more fulfilling. So, largely thanks to an underwhelming ending, this movie’s quality components just don’t add up to a more substantial sum.

Pyewacket gets a
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