On the Radar – Pledge

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In this week’s installment of On the Radar, we have college thriller Pledge, a nasty piece of work that was the talk of this year’s Fantasia Fest (Montreal) and FrightFest (London). From director Daniel Robbins and writer/co-star Zack Weiner, this film depicts three hapless freshmen who, in their attempts to rush a fraternity to improve their social standings, wind up in the hands of sadists who run them through a brutal gauntlet of abuse and torture and may perhaps have no intentions of allowing them to survive the ordeal. Despite his debut feature Uncaged having failed to gain much love or attention, Robbins appears to have hit the mark with this vicious exploration of a culture driven by toxic behavior and paired with a crushing pressure to conform. With a score of 7.8 on IMDb and 80% on Rotten Tomatoes so far in its festival run, Pledge has been acquired by IFC Midnight for release sometime next year.


Here’s what a few of the critics have had to say:

With a smart and savvy script – rich with genuine characters and the matching dialogue and a breathless pace of twists and turns – I have zero hesitation in offering up a very high recommendation. 4.5/5.

    – Michael Klug, Horror Freak News

Pledge is a mean and disgusting home run of a horror film…Don’t miss this one.

    – Luke Rodriguez, Modern Horrors

It’s not gore for gore’s sake…but you may need a strong constitution to last the duration. This film is a bloody and brutal burst of masculinity that packs a punch. 4/5.

    – Kat Hughes, The Hollywood News

Pledge sets a model example of what an indie effort can accomplish simply through solid production value and remarkably strong casting…It’s just a clear-cut slash of traditional thrills biting off only what it can chew with entertainingly sharp teeth. 85/100.

    – Ian Sedensky, Culture Crypt


IFC Midnight generally makes all its releases in simultaneous limited theater/VOD style or straight to VOD and disc, so we’ll be looking out for when they lock in a solid date next year and are looking forward to experiencing this alleged “Green Room meets Saw” stomach-churner.



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Extraordinary Tales

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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


what_it_is_review_header
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

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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

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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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Stream Picks – Hello Cruel World II – Oct. 26

For this week’s Stream Picks, we’re giving you Volume Two of our favorite international horror offerings. As always, these are all ready to watch on some of the most popular streaming outlets. Like last time, these recommends are not for those averse to subtitles – you’ll be doing some reading, but if you’re looking for something different to try, we think these are worth a watch.


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Mexico: The Similars – 2015 (featured)

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Unrated (equal to R rating for violence, language, and brief nudity) – 1hr 29min
Directed by Issac Ezban
Starring Fernando Becerril, Cassandra Ciangherotti, Humberto Busto

In this creepy homage to the style of The Twilight Zone, the year is 1968 and eight strangers are grouped together in a bus station by a bizarre weather phenomenon. When some of them begin experiencing inexplicable physical transformations, paranoia sets in and wild accusations are made, turning their refuge into a place of anguish and violence. Along with 2014’s The Incident, director Issac Ezban has been developing a reputation for his stylish depictions of sci-fi/horror that invoke the vibe of Black Mirror, The Outer Limits, and the aforementioned Twilight Zone.


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Iran: Under the Shadow – 2016

UNDER THE SHADOW
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Rated PG-13 – 1hr 24min
Directed by Babak Anvari
Starring Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi

Set in 1980s Tehran, a woman named Shideh, banned from her medical studies in the wake of the Islamic Revolution, must keep her daughter safe as Iraqi missile strikes rock the city and her husband is called to provide medical treatment on the war front. If that wasn’t enough, her child has caught the attention of a mysterious and sinister presence that dwells in their building. As the air raids intensify, so will the curse of this malevolent spirit. A BAFTA nominee for best picture, this movie ambitiously blends the political turmoil of a nation scarred by war, revolution, and cultural upheaval with horror inspired by Persian folklore.


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Hong Kong: Rigor Mortis – 2013

RIGOR MORTIS
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Unrated – (equal to hard R rating for graphic violence, imagery, disturbing sexual content, and brief nudity) – 1hr 43min
Directed by Juno Mak
Starring Siu-Ho Chin, Anthony Chan, Fat Chung

A once popular actor, his life now in ruins, moves into a rundown apartment block and begins to contemplate suicide. What he discovers is that the place is ravaged by the same kind of evil entities that he used to fictionally battle as the star of a horror movie franchise. While involving a lot of cultural references and folklore that are very specific to that part of the world, this is a very stylish and bleak subversion of a sub-genre of Mandarin films that blended comical horror and martial arts in their depiction of the jiangshi, or hopping vampire. Yet vampires there aren’t the same as vampires here. It’s all quite confusing and much of the context is lost on Western audiences, but there is still a lot that can be appreciated in regards to visuals and tone, even if a substantial portion is lost in translation.


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France: Ils (Them) – 2006

ILS
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Rated R – 1hr 17min
Directed by David Moreau & Xavier Palud
Starring Olivia Bonamy, Michael Cohen

A couple living in their isolated home are set upon during the night by a gang of hooded assailants. That bare-bones plot pretty much sums this movie up, but what it lacks in story, it compensates for in sequences of pure tension and suspense. While it has much in common with The Strangers, this actually predates that film by a couple years. If you enjoy cat-and-mouse sequences and don’t mind a movie that is essentially just those, you should find this to your liking. (Heads up though – the ending hasn’t exactly aged so well.)


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Thailand: Laddaland – 2011

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Unrated (equal to R rating for graphic violence & imagery) – 1hr 53min
Directed by Sophon Sakdaphisit
Starring Saharat Sangkapreecha, Piyathida Woramusik, Sutatta Udomsilp

In this paranormal chiller, a family moves into an upscale neighborhood – the father eager to put forward the image offinancial success. With a hefty mortgage to pay and a fractured relationship between the parents and their teenage daughter, life in the seemingly peaceful upper-class subdivision isn’t what Dad had hoped for, as the house next door is the scene of a gruesome murder-suicide, intensifying tensions within their own household. Things boil over when visions of their slaughtered neighbors begin to appear. Despite the Southeast Asian setting, this film touches upon a lot of themes that Western audiences can certainly appreciate, as it plays like a variation of The Amityville Horror but for the post-Great Recession era.

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Seven in Heaven

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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

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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.

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On the Radar – Possum

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With this first installment of On the Radar, I’m taking a look at the British creeper Possum, the debut feature from Matthew Holness, a comedian who is apparently notable in the UK, but I’m admittedly unfamiliar with. While I can’t speak for his comedic talent, he certainly appears to have quite the dark streak. Possum is the story of a children’s puppeteer who returns to the home of his abusive stepfather carrying with him a satchel containing a horrific creation, the puppet Possum, that appears to be taking on a life of its own. Shot on 35mm film, Holness is apparently going for an authentic 70s/80s aesthetic for his unorthodox creature feature and, as 2014’s The Babadook featured a sinister take on children’s pop-up books, is invoking the innocent nature of both nursery rhymes and children’s puppets to corrupt for the viewer’s discomfort. “Can you spy him deep within? Little Possum. Black as sin.” The title character’s little rhyme sounds about as charming as he looks on the poster. Currently with a 7.2 rating on IMDb and an 83% on Rotten Tomatoes, Possum is promising to be quite the squirm-inducing experience. According to those who have already seen it, it is of the ‘slowburn’ variety, and while I wouldn’t mind if horror had a little more fun these days, that seems to be the defining quality of this era in the genre.

Here’s a sample of what some of the critics have had to say:

“Supremely disturbing…possibly the scariest puppet ever committed to celluloid.”

    – Matthew Turner, Nerdly

“Part of its slow burn terror is just how dangerously unpredictable the whole thing feels.”

    – Josh Slater-Williams, SciFiNow

“[Possum] strikes the nerve between wanting to cry and wanting to scream. 10/10.

    – Katie Driscoll, Starburst

“Matthew Holness taps into psychological horror greatness with a cerebral picture that will lay eggs in your brain.”

    -Daniel Kurland, Den of Geek

Those are some bold reviews for this movie thus far, and it is coming to theaters in the UK on Oct. 26th and to VOD in the States on Nov. 2nd. I’ll be posting a review of my own shortly thereafter, and while I have some reservations that this might be insufferably pretentious horror exclusively for the arthouse crowd (I’ve gotten burned like that before), I have some high hopes for this eerie-looking flick.

Check out the trailer here:


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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


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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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