Tag Archives: Horror

The Rental

28 Jul

‘The Rental’: You know party’s going to go bad, but this horror thriller does it in the best way

By Tom Meek

The house in the woods or remote enclave has long been a ripe setting for horror and home invasion fare. Wes Craven’s brilliant and brutal “The Last House on the Left” (1972) and Polanski’s unheralded “Cul-de-sac” (1966) defined and seeded the genre; those that came after have checked in with mixed results, with most failing to live up – but that’s understandable, right? Dave Franco (brother of James) makes his directorial debut with “The Rental,” a polished yet pat psychodrama that turns full horror thriller by the end and even dips its toe into more culty genre.

The setup’s familiar: Four toothsome young adults on the threshold of a more settled life (marriage and kids) brew up something of a last fling getaway in a modernistic spread abutting the sea-splashed cliffs of Northern California. Charlie (Dan Stevens, “Downton Abbey” and “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”), a tech entrepreneur who is rocking and raking it in, is newly married to Michelle (Alison Brie, “Mad Men”). Along for the fun is Charlie’s fun-loving but bad luck brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) and his girlfriend Mina (Sheila Vand), who’s a close collaborator (perhaps too close?) of Charlie’s at the tech firm. The unique and relevant twist (the script is by Franco and mumblecore/mumblegore stalwart Joe Swanberg) is that Mina, who’s Middle Eastern, is denied the rental that “white guy” Charlie scores 20 minutes later. Charges of racism fill the drive up and the caretaker of the estate Taylor (Toby Huss) appears to something of a rube you’d peg for a Trumpster. It doesn’t help that he admits to partaking of the bottle liberally. To veiled charges thrown by Mina, he seems genuinely clueless, and we do get early peeks at the house from the point of view of someone outside spying in. Is it Taylor, Jason, Freddy or some other malcontent with malicious intent?

That brooding unhappiness gets swept aside with a few hits of ecstasy and a lot of “babe” this and that. The lot’s a fairly generic bunch, and you can’t wait for whatever it is lurking in the woods to emerge and chop of few of them up. It doesn’t happen right away; the initial ill deeds spew from within the four. The dog (a cute French bulldog), who according to the rules of the house should not be there, goes missing, and then they discover video cams in the bathrooms – an Airbnb nightmare, but they can’t go to the cops because of their own transgression. And yes, a body turns up and the four must decide how to play it out. They don’t choose wisely.

How it all wraps up is orchestrated smartly by Franco and Swanberg with a lot of help from the misty, lush cinematography by Christian Sprenger and a mood-setting score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. The running length of just under 90 minutes is a win, too, and Franco and Swanberg hit the final bend deciding not to revel in gore so much as provocation, leaving enough teasingly unanswered that you want the film to go on. I can’t imagine there’s a world without “The Rental 2” and maybe more. There’s nothing too deep here, just parts of other works stitched together for lean, mean effect.

Deerskin

2 May

‘Deerskin’: Georges’ fancy new jacket doesn’t fit, but adrift and sad in the hills, he’s a good fit for it

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A trippy arthouse horror film that’s tedious and arousing at the same time – what would one expect from the director who made “Rubber” (2010), a dark comedy about a homicidal tire that goes on a killing rampage? This one’s about a suede jacket made of (can you guess?) deerskin and its obsessive owner (Oscar winner Jean Dujardin), who appears adrift and in need of direction. Once he gets it, the outré drama set in the alluring French mountainside turns très dark as bodies quickly start to pile up.

About halfway into “Deerskin” you begin to wonder if the protagonist, Georges, is mad, and perhaps an unreliable narrator. He does pay 9K for the fringed garment of the title, which doesn’t quite fit (too small) and, as part of the odd deal (the old coot who sells it to Georges is played by Julie Delpy’s father, Albert) gets an antiquated video camera. From there, the content yet forlorn Georges settles into a nearby hamlet where he postures himself a filmmaker and quickly makes the acquaintance of a young bartender (Adele Haenel from “BPM” and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”), an unemployed film editor – talk about convenient circumstance.

To echo the internal malaise of Georges, director and cameraman Quentin Dupieux (also writer and editor) shoots everything in flat, washed-out hues. We’re informed early on that Georges has been spurned by his wife and left destitute, but we’re given little else to go on. Dujardin, who rolled to international fame with the 2011 silent-era Oscar winner, “The Artist,” bears the weight of the world as Georges, with eyes that are sad, heavy and weary; they also show flickers of devious inner workings. It’s a performance that carries the film through the meandering buildup, but as gears shift, Dujardin’s nuance gets submerged in the bloody boil of black comedy. There are scenes at night when Georges lies in his boardinghouse bed and talks to the jacket – and it talks back. Yes, we are in the slightly surreal realm that made “In Fabric” (1918) a lingering curiosity, but Dupieux, who moonlights as a techno-pop star, can’t fully rectify the character study of Georges with the rushed, final bloody pages. Haenel’s bartender-turned-collaborator is a game player, and deepens the stakes. She’s no waif in waiting, but a strong observer who’s onto Georges. Their collaboration on Georges’ macabre footage is unfortunately far too brief. A similarly themed curio, “Man Bites Dog” (1992) had a film crew following a serial killer on his weekly hunts. It was dark, devilish and a biting reflection of society’s obsession with grim happenings. Here those moments go by in a fast-forward montage. Questions linger and burn, and only the napped suede jacket seems to know the answers.

The Wretched

2 May
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The IFC Midnight collection often rides that fine line between arthouse chiller and mainstream horror hash, such as the “Grudge” and “Annabelle” series. “The Wretched” isn’t any different, layered with grim, ghoulish visuals (bloody, feasting mouths and disjointed body parts) gurgling under small-town idylls.

The film begins with a sharp hook as a babysitter, arriving at a home for her shift, can’t find her charge but hears strange noises in the basement – the kind of flesh- and bone-crunching noise that says “Don’t come down here.” But she does. (Not that she sees it, but the basement door bears an occult symbol.) From that happy opener we rewind five days as we settle in with Ben (John-Paul Howard), whose life as a young teen (his parents are recently divorced, and he’s making youthful forays into romance, or not) is more interesting than the freaky shenanigans of Abbie (Zarah Mahler, who does demonic effectively enough), his next-door neighbor who skulks about at night in silk gowns with an evil glower in her eye. Ben doesn’t pay her wacky wanders too much attention at first. Then her son, Dillion (Blane Crockarell), terrified of his mother, comes running to Ben one night.

The film, written and directed by Brett and Drew T. Pierce (billed as the Pierce Brothers, who collaborated on “Deadheads,” a zombie flick that has nothing to do with the trippy 1960s rock band) slide into “Stranger Things” territory as Ben does some googling about witches of the woods and finds a strange, gnarled tree with an underground lair. As things hit their gory, blood-splattered crescendo, the Pierce lads pull in as much as they can from the classic goo-steeped transmutation scenes in “Alien” (1979) or “The Thing” (1982) – which those films did better. The big miss here is Ben’s angst-filled existence in a township of privileged jerks, bullying jocks and elusive coeds out of his league. In one such scene, a comely partygoer entices Ben into the pool and coerces him to get naked, only to have the intimate moment quickly exposed for what is: a planned group prank. Then there’s Ben’s relationship with Mallory (Piper Curda), a coworker at the local marina; their late-night phone calls as Ben spies on Abbie are more compelling in what they say about each other and the character of the town than the weirdness Ben is drinking in. “The Wretched” feels like a melding of two films: one I’ve seen ad infinitum, and another that begs empathy and intrigue.

The Other Lamb

4 Apr

‘The Other Lamb’: Lesson from cult life in woods is largely that guys are manipulative jerks, Part I

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With the Covid-19 state of emergency and shutdown of movie theaters, we’re highlighting new streaming options for people stuck in their homes by social distancing.

“The Other Lamb” is a twisted tale about a cult in the deep woods, dwelling in yurtlike structures adorned with pagan markings and living off the land, all female but led by a man known simply as the Shepherd (Michiel Huisman). The Shepherd lives well: His “Handmaiden” flock wash him and feed him, and the young women he selects get the can’t-say-no opportunity to “receive his grace.” The Shepherd, bearded and benevolent in countenance, evokes Jesus, but when things don’t go his way he acts like Machiavelli, relying on his divine righteousness and religiously obedient groupthink to ensure he gets what he wants. And then there’s that flock of sheep always nearby, peppered with a few anxious bull rams huffing and snorting with pent-up sexual energy, as if they want in on the fertility rites too.

In texture, the postured “Other Lamb” feels a lot like Robert Eggers’ 2015 Calvinist tale of the occult, “The Witch,” but at one point early on we get an incursion from the outside world and learn that we’re not toiling in a primitive, pre-electricity era. The main focus of the film is a young woman by the name of Selah (Raffey Cassidy, so good as Natalie Portman’s daughter in “Vox Lux” and a simmering realization here as well) whose mother had been a member of the cult and perished recently amid curious circumstance. Budding on the cusp of sexual availability, she’s eyed continually by the Shepherd, but Selah’s interested in learning what happened and stepping outside the confines of the cult. It’s such coming-of-age anxiety that gives the film a simmering tension beyond the raw sexual energy that’s heaped out there from frame one with “Wicker Man”-esque dankness.

Things meander as the group is forced to find a new Eden. The odyssey builds the character of Selah, and reveals other things at play beyond the Shepherd’s mercurial nature and the ever-present, heavy-breathing rams. Take the cult’s social order, which has the older women (Selah’s mom was one) referred to as “broken things” or “cursed wives,” both mentors and outcasts. And even though there’s the pronounced tang of Puritanism, the scene of the Shepherd baptizing young women in scanty albs would likely set the testosterone tinder of spring break bros afire once the anointed in their little-left-to-the-imagination garb are raised from the watery depths for air. It’s a weird, haunting modulation between austere religious regimentation, the Shepherd’s enigmatic id and the women’s individual freedoms offset and undercut by the power of group coercion. 

The film’s big win, besides Cassidy, is the gorgeous cinematography by Michal Englert (“The Congress”) rendering the vast Irish highlands as both foreboding and liberating. Overall, Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska delivers a confident and poised composition, crafting a spectacle of a man justifying entitlement by claims of divine right, even if feels done before.

 

The Hunt

14 Mar

‘The Hunt’: Liberals don’t want to take their guns – because they really add zest to the human hunt

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The film “The Hunt,” not to be confused with the 2012 Danish film of the same name starring Mads Mikkelsen, had been shelved by Universal last year because of sensitivity issues related to the film’s central plot of humans using other humans as prey – nothing new, but back in the day Fay Wray was in “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932) or Cornel Wilde was “The Naked Prey” (1965), Charles Whitman had yet to show the world what human-on-human carnage was really about.

The strategy had been to release “The Hunt” as a horror film; now the curio is being spun as a satire-cum-horror, or something “unclassifiable.” If we hadn’t seen Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (2017) or “Us” (2019), tagging it as unique, new or groundbreaking might work, but that crossover zone has already been defined and owned. “The Hunt” begins like a “Saw” chapter with a dozen random people waking up in the kind of bucolic field you might find in “Midsommar” (2019), semi-bound and gagged and not knowing where they are. Turns out they’re in a kill zone. Once they find a key to unlock the gags, a helpful park ranger comes out bearing arms. “Why do we need these?” comes a groggy question as semi-automatic pistols and assault rifles are meted out. Before there is any real answer, the asker’s brains are splattered by a high-caliber projectile and it’s game on, with the rest of the crew scattering and taking cover.

The what and why as bullets and arrows fly pull at the minds of those on the run as well as the audience. A trio eventually gets outside the barbed wire confines, muttering something about “Mansongate.” It’s along their journey that we get an inkling of what’s going on: rich liberals hunting deplorables and rednecks for their racially insensitive online posts, denial of climate change and so on. “I bet he used the N-word a lot,” one Richie Rich says. “You fail and we pay,” another says in the middle of hand-to-hand combat. It’s cheeky irony that the East Coasters have set up their slaughter shop in Arkansas, and another wicked barb that filmmaker Craig Zobel and his writers, Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof (both of TV’s “Watchmen”), have us rooting for the “deplorables,” who in this case seem far less a threat to democracy than rich liberals who want to impose their will with dollars and cents, and, in this case, semiautomatic weapons.

It’s hard to discuss “The Hunt” more without selling the farm, and that’s the real fun of the film: the twists, pitfalls and revelations that confront the hunted as they seek safe ground. I will say that Betty Gilpin of Netflix’s “Glow” cuts a captivating presence as the unassuming waif with kick-ass can-do (think Ripley by way of “Emma”) tagged Snowball (“Animal Farm” tries to factor into the plot, but the convention is oddly inserted). She’s matched by Hilary Swank’s righteously indignant badass, who likes to discuss the delineating factors between a house and a mansion, and Amy Madigan and Reed Birney make a wonderful side dish as a pair of yokels who run a ma-and-pa gas station. The plot’s got a bunch of holes in it, but “The Hunt”’s more about the pursuit, cheeky spoofs and the notion that elitism ain’t pretty no matter what flag you’re waving.

Underwater

11 Jan

 

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It turns out “1917” isn’t the only beat-the-clock film this weekend. “Underwater,” a 95-minute race against time, gets its start early and rarely lets down. No, it’s not as harrowing, sharp or intelligent as “1917,” and that’s not because it’s a sci-fi thriller that asks a lot of its viewers – it’s because it’s an ersatz hodgepodge of genre cornerstones that have come before, namely “The Abyss” (1989), the “Alien” films and so on. To say more might spoil some not-so-surprising twists.

We begin with ominous news clippings about mysterious tremors off the Pacific coast and plunge quickly down to a drilling platform 7 miles beneath the ocean surface. There Kristen Stewart’s Norah, a mechanical engineer and one of 300 workers on the rig, brushes her teeth casually as the ring-shaped structure shifts and groans worryingly. More groans, a droplet of water and then all hell breaks loose. By the time we come up for air – and it’s a jittery, frenetic sequence, maybe the film’s best – most of the structure’s gone, as are most of those 300 employees. In a sealed-off section, Norah and five other survivors come to the unhappy realization that they’re trapped, with no serviceable means of returning to the surface, and the rest of the gigantic structure is collapsing slowly down on them.

The answer, as the rig’s captain (Vincent Cassel) has it, is clunky robotic diving suits designed to withstand all that pressure and an iffy, near blind amble across the ocean floor to an older facility that may have resources to get home. Up to that point, and at the onset of that sojourn, the film’s pretty gripping (think “Deepwater Horizon” inverted) but then something weird and ghostly swims by and our budding character study becomes a creature-feature fear fest – and not a very compelling one.

Directed by William Eubank, who showed poise and promise with the mind-bending thriller “The Signal” (2014), the film’s composed competently enough, and production values are high. It’s just all weighed down by an inert storyline that doesn’t even feign putting a new spin on old tropes: As they prepare to make the trip, Norah tells the other surviving woman, Emily (Jessica Henwick), to take off her pants, as they won’t fit in the deepwater diving suit, though the goofball big boy of the group (T.J. Miller) fits into the unisex exoskeleton just fine. Later on, like in Ridley Scott’s 1979 deep space thriller, there’s a panty-line payoff; it’s not egregious, but most definitely worthy of an eye roll. Through it all, the bespectacled Stewart (in an Annie Lennox bob) maintains a commanding hold of the screen, casting palatable emotions as needed. Without her, “Underwater” might have been a full-on collapse; even with, when the camera starts to settle on Norah and her mates and something crashes down or swims in from the dark, it reminds us that these humans are just chum. Best not to get too attached.

In Fabric

2 Jan

‘In Fabric’: That’s a killer dress you’ve got on, but the film around it unravels as we watch

 

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“In Fabric,” the latest arthouse horror offering from British writer-director Peter Strickland (“The Duke of Burgundy,” 2014, and “Berberian Sound Studio,” 2012), hems hard and long on its eerie, immersive style, but remains elusive when it comes to the what and why. Centering on a bloodthirsty “artery red” dress with supernatural powers and the department store staff/cult that sends it out into the world, “In Fabric” has the vibe of “Suspiria” sans the foreboding grip – because there we have an inkling of what the cult is up to.

Like the recent “Waves,” “In Fabric” is told in two parts. In the first segment we meet Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a bank teller and lonely single mother in her 50s looking to get her groove back after a divorce. A trip to a high-end boutique department store (think Lord & Taylor or Saks with a perfume wisp of the occult) nets Sheila the “risqué” red dress that she’s steered to by the freaky S&M head sales associate (Fatma Mohamed). At night, strange things go on: the dress floats menacingly about the house; Sheila, ever wandering herself, peers thorough a crack in a door to watch her son (Jaygann Ayeh) perform cunnilingus on his girlfriend (Gwendoline Christie); and down at the department store, the coven gather round a redheaded mannequin and writhe in orgasmic ritual. 

There’s a lot of moody kink and a fantastic retro ’70s horror score by the techno group Cavern of Anti-Matter that helps bind the giallo homage together. Through paper clippings Sheila learns that the former wearer of the dress (the model in the catalog) died bizarrely (death by zebra, anyone?). Perhaps the scariest part of “In Fabric,” however, isn’t the killer dress but the higher-ups, white men who question their underlings’ intent and commitment constantly. In one scene, Sheila is called in by her superiors (comedians Steve Oram and Julian Barratt) who are concerned with the sincerity of her handshake and the amount of time she spends in the bathroom. It’s a shakedown of sorts in which the knife-twisting is all done with the “fuck you” politeness  demanded by British etiquette. In the latter chapter, a nerdy washing-machine repairman named Reg who dons the dress (Leo Bill) is humiliated by his ogre of a boss and pretty much everyone else, including Sheila’s managers, who pick him apart when he applies for a loan.

Themes of ritualistic consumerism and crowd mentality are embroidered in, but so ostentatiously and without satirical substance that they feel like cheap window dressing, especially when measured against George Romero’s great “Dawn of the Dead” (1978), which proves a much more devious and effective take on constant consumption. Even as plot developments trend toward the silly, Strickland remains focused on his spellbinding effect – and not enough can be said about the vulnerable, no-nonsense approach of Jean-Baptiste (of Mike Leigh’s “Secret and Lies”). When she’s on screen, she keeps the outré tale from unraveling. “In Fabric” is a unique experience best taken in with logic left at the door.

Parasite

18 Oct

‘Parasite’: What’s rising from the basement? Another squad eager to fight in the class war

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Korean director Bong Joon-ho, who plumbed issues of economic disparity in “The Host” (2006) and “Snowpiercer” (2013), is back at it in “Parasite,” where we meet the haves and have-nots – the Parks and the Kims – and the shit starts flying.

We catch up with the Kims first, living in a shabby basement apartment where they fold pizza boxes for a buck and scam Wi-Fi from those above. They live hand to mouth until the enterprising daughter of the clan, Ki-jung (So-dam Park, sassy and excellent) lands a job as an art therapy tutor to the Parks’ young, eccentric (and demanding) son, who was traumatized in first grade by something emerging from the lowest level of the Parks’ sleekly palatial, very Scandinavian home. A host of opportunities emerge. Ki-taek’s older brother is ensconced tutoring the Park’s daughter. The mother supplants the Parks’ longtime housekeeper. And what if the patriarch of the Kims could get a job as the Parks’ driver? Neat idea, but they already have a chauffeur. The resolution is a pair of soiled panties left in the back of the Benz for Madame Park, quite OCD and repressed, to get her gloved mitts on.

The Parks, for all their wealth and stature, are 120 percent unaware that their new battery of employees know each other. It’s a happy coexistence for a good while; then the Parks go away for a long weekend and the Kims move in and make the place their own, emptying the liquor cabinets and pretty much turning the sparkling, spartan palace into a squatter’s paradise. It’s also when that something in the basement rears its head and the movie goes from a tense 5 to a frenetic 11.

Bong’s “Snowpiercer,” famously nearly ruined by disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, was about class stratification – those in the cramped dingy rear of the post eco-apocalyptic train eating soylent-ish green squares until they rise up and storm the gilded front, where champagne and sushi are fed to the 1 percent. Here, as with Jordan Peele in this year’s “Us,” Bong once again lets his message bubble up steadily yet subtly, ever pointed and tugging at the corner of the frame.

The culmination is as shocking, provocative and thoroughly entertaining (and resonant) as in “The Host,” which stormed the minds and hearts of critics and filmgoers the way the mutant beast did the urban landscape along the Han River. Beyond the impressive efforts of the ensemble cast, not enough can be said of the superbly composed framing by Kyung-pyo Hong (“Snowpiercer” and “Burning”), especially the wide shots of dingy urban alleyways, littered with refuse and Escher-like ascents. It’s a complete effort all around, and the kind of follow-up folks were hungry for after “The Host.” By returning to familiar themes and (untraditional) family values, Bong has again latched on to the collective mindset with a deft touch of the outré.

The Lighthouse

18 Oct

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“The Lighthouse” is a senses-riveting immersion, aurally awash in the sonorous sounds of the sea, the pelt of torrential rain and the soul-shaking roar of the title structure’s bullhorn. It’s also brilliantly composed in austere black and white, in a retro-cropped format (practically, a neat square at 1.19:1) by Jarin Blaschke, who also shot director Robert Eggers’ debut, “The Witch” in 2015. “Roma,” another bold black and white gamble, walked off with the Academy’s best achievement in cinematography last year – and rightly so – but I must say, much of what Blaschke and Eggers conjure up here is more vital to their film’s core and registers an overall surpassing grade. Hard to imagine, but yes, it’s that stunning.

The narrative the ambience hangs from isn’t quite as sure, but what’s to worry when you have Willem DaFoe and Robert Pattinson? The setup, based on writings by Melville and sea-obsessed others of the era, has two men keeping the flame on a remote isle somewhere far off the New England coast. It’s circa 1890, so there are no cell towers; there’s also no Morse code from the island should something go wrong. The pair are dropped off on the rock for a four-week shift. Dafoe’s Thomas is a salty old tar, Pattinson’s wide-eyed Ephraim the newbie in his charge. The order of things gets laid out early on: Thomas does the all the attending to light, which is kept under tight lock and key, as well as the cooking, while Ephraim pretty much does the backbreaking rest – scrubbing the floors, hauling heavy loads of coal across jagged rock outcroppings, emptying the piss pots and painting the structure from a rickety harness that would make any OSHA official cringe. 

Thomas proves to be an Ahab-like taskmaster, though just what his white whale is never surfaces. The first rub between the mates comes over the consumption of booze (Ephraim won’t partake) and later the quality of those scrubbed floors. What Eggers begins to simmer here (as he did in “The Witch”) is a slow descent into madness as things fall apart, with faint hints of perhaps something bigger and more divine at play – fog-impaired siren sightings, booze-addled images of sensually writhing tentacles and even the incarnation of Neptune himself. The existential horror story gets triggered by a vociferant gull with all the brio and menace of the devil-eyed goat Black Phillip in “The Witch,” and the arrival of a nor’easter that could hold up their relief by weeks, if not months. The stranding ultimately becomes an opportunity for the actors to really dig in and Act – and boy do they, as alcohol, sexual tension and stormwater rain down upon the splintering shingles of their characters’ relationship with the mystery of the lighthouse tower and Thomas’ journal (also conspicuously under lock and key) ever pulling at Ephraim.

The chemistry between the two, well at the top of their games, couldn’t be any more perfect, and it’s a pretty physically taxing slog, to boot. Pattinson, so good in such offbeat, gritty ditties as “Good Time” (2017) and “High Life” this year, pours himself into the part, never flinching as torrents of wind-driven rain or fecal matter pelt his face. But this is Dafoe’s flick, his mercurial changeups and old sea dog affect behind a beard so thick and mangy it rivals that of Edmond O’Brien’s old coot in “The Wild Bunch” (1969), sells and seals both the authentic air of the period and the reality-warping mayhem. 

The film’s finest moment, echoing the “Indianapolis” scene in “Jaws” (1974), has the marooned liquored up and singing and dancing gaily. In the cloistered quarters, the choreography and execution are pure bravura. Of course there’s no shark to break the interlude, just the specter of loneliness, haunted pasts and the unmistakeable boundary of taboo. Other cinematic borrowings from “The Shining” (1981) and “Apocalypse Now” (1979) may raise a brow, but are otherwise unnecessary distractions. 

The other bright spot is the titular structure itself. The isle-perched beacon looks a legitimate relic, 150 years old, but truth be told, it was erected to house Eggers’ haunted hall of personal demons. There’s also some eye-grabbing visual effects with the use of white burning light and an eerie score by Mark Korven that deepens the whole, beguiling experience. Like Pattinson’s deep space cruiser en route to a black hole in Claire Denis’ “High Life,” “The Lighthouse” is less about liftoff or landing and more about the tormented sojourn.

Midsommar

5 Jul

‘Midsommar’: Hands-on anthropology studies reveal how dark it can get under midnight sun

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As a kid I went to this Danish town north of Los Angeles called Solvang where it was Christmas year-round and the waffles were extra large and strangely exotic, and everyone dressed like they were from “The Sound of Music.” I tell you this because Solvang reminds me so much of the Swedish commune where four Americans wind up for a nine-day fertility festival “Midsommar,” the thrilling new chiller from Ari Aster. Everything’s so old school Lapland you half expect to see the Ricola folk or Max Von Sydow among the elders welcoming the group.

Two of the four Americans dropping in – Josh (William Jackson Harper, TV’s “The Good Place”) and Christian (Jack Reynor, the poor person’s Chris Platt) – are anthropology grad students, and the midnight sun rites are fodder for their theses. It helps that stateside buddy Pelle (Vilhelm Blongren) is from the remote village that feels like pieces borrowed from the sets of M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” and Robert Egger’s “The Witch” with a bit of Ikea retrofitting tossed in. Rounding out the U.S. crew is loudmouth Mark (Will Poulter, the dirty cop in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit”) and Dani (Florence Pugh, “Lady Macbeth”), Christian’s girlfriend and a tag-along whom the other lads in the posse aren’t so keen about.

The film begins and ends with Dani. There’s a prolonged opening about her clinginess to Christian, her bipolar sister and a family tragedy that would send anyone to therapy in double time– a hauntingly fraught meander worthy of Paul Thomas Anderson. Once up in the Swedish enclave, Dani freaks out on organic hallucinogens, Pelle clearly has eyes for her and the age-old cult ordains her as the dark horse in the May Queen dance-off.

Early on in the anthropological exploration—which doesn’t feel so scientific or methodical—we get a glimmer into just how dark this eternal summer day can get. Once you’re 72 in the commune, you’re ready for renewal, which has something to do with a swan dive onto a stone pallet or a wedding reception line of celebrants wielding a medieval mallet. It’s not easy to drink in, but it’s when Aster – who played on audiences’ sense of comfort and composure with the equally grim “Hereditary” – lets us know shit just got real. The American scholars, as smart as the allegedly are, don’t take note of such omens, even as their ranks thin. But when things begin to feel a bit “Wicker Man” predictable, Aster focuses on the fractured dynamic between Christian and Dani, and the choices the characters make are telling.

The final scene, just as with the reveal of the fate of Dani’s family, is gorgeously framed and flawlessly choreographed. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, to be sure, but Aster has again put a new, gory bow on a genre we know too well. If you can make it to the end, you’ll walk out on edge and agape.