Tag Archives: Horror

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.

The Dead Don’t Die

14 Jun

‘The Dead Don’t Die’: Jarmusch wins with cast but loses a battle of wits against zombie genre

 

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After the subtly dark vampire satire “Only Lovers Left Alive” (2013), the prospect of witty, deadpan filmmaker Jim Jarmusch taking a shot at the zombie apocalypse seemed as plump and juicy as a pinned motorist under a flipped car struggling to get free before a lumbering herd of ravenous undead arrives. Truth be told, Jarmusch’s droll, genre-deconstructing zom-edy could have used a bit more meat on its hollow bones. As is, it reanimates plenty from George Romero’s canon of shambling-undead work, starting with the small-town setting of his seminal 1968 classic “Night of the Living Dead,” a rural Pennsylvania podunk an hour or so from Pittsburgh. To give “The Dead Don’t Die” a bit of a nod-and-wink edge, Jarmusch also kicks down the fourth wall from time to time – mostly to humorous effect, but not always.

The major wins here come in a wide-ranging cast that includes Iggy Pop, Carol Kane, Danny Glover and Steve Buscemi in small, bloody bits: Pop as a punked-out zombie and Buscemi as a cantankerous Trump-esque supporter wearing a “Make America White Again” red hat snarling about invaders trespassing on his farm as he blasts apart undead heads with a shotgun.

The world-ending mayhem centers more around a should-have-been-retired gent by the name of Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray – I’m guessing the movie actor reference is intended), the sheriff of Centerville (pop. less than 800 at the start of the film, maybe more at the end if you add in the reanimated) and his deputies Ronnie (Adam Driver) and Mindy (Chloe Sevigny). Even before the first innards are strewn about Centerville’s only diner Ronnie keeps remarking that the culprit is zombies, with the added refrain that “It’s not going to end well.” When pressed on how he’s so certain, Ronnie replies casually that he’s read the script. Yup, it’s that kind of flick. You may balk or embrace it. No matter. This is a Jarmusch film, and the dialogue is chewy and rich even in the gut-masticating jaws of death.

Why the dead get up and begin to munch on the living has something to do with polar fracking tossing the earth off its axis and a “fake news” coverup by big energy and complacent cable news stations – imagine that? As the hordes of decaying beloved erupt from their subterranean nests in a threat far more titillating than the reality, the film begins to stumble and list like one of its ghouls. Thankfully Tilda Swinton whooshes in as a newly transplanted mortician with a weird way of speaking (Scottish and proper) and means of making exact 90-degree angles when walking. She’s also in the elite class of Uma Thurman’s bride from the “Kill Bill” movies and Michonne from “The Walking Dead” when it comes to slicing and dicing with a samurai sword. Her elven embalmer has plenty of fun beheading the undead (there’s no gore, just black, dusty wisps), as do we with her, and then in the flash of her blade or an otherworldly light she’s taken from us, and the film’s soul is too.

Amid the disjointed olio there’s some nifty, witty play about kids of color in a detention facility getting the last laugh and the film’s titular theme song by a Johnny Cash-sounding Sturgill Simpson working its way into the plot, not to mention zombies clinging to old habits such as Wi-Fi, coffee and smartphones – though Jarmusch overuses the commercialism message from Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” as he runs out of ideas on where to go. Then things jump the headstone, mostly in the uninspired denouement, and there’s the scene when Ronnie drinks in the vision of a comely hipster from out of town (Selena Gomez) and remarks to Cliff that he knows she’s part Mexican because he has an affinity for Mexicans.It’s so random and, given politics these days, odd – it has no obvious payoff.

Shamble on, you silly ghouls.

US

24 Mar

‘Us’: Jordan Peele’s terrific sophomore flick shows how scary it can be to fight with family

 

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Jordan Peele’s follow-up to the genre-rebranding horror classic “Get Out” (2017) is something more pure in terms of blood and gore, but not as sharp politically or socially. Not that that makes it a bad movie – I’m just not sure it’s possible to improve on “Get Out.” And while “Us” is something else entirely, it is cut from the same cloth.

What’s to know? The Wilson family are off for a summer vacation in Santa Cruz, replete with a house on the bay and an amusement park boardwalk. It sounds dreamy, but as the nuclear family rolls in there’s dread on the mother’s face, with good cause. Turns out when Addy was 10 (played by an effectively wide-eyed Madison Curry) she had an encounter with an identical girl who accosted her in the house of mirrors and, as a teen, went through years and years of therapy. They unpack, dad (Winston Duke) scores a sputtering speedboat and they take in a few beach beverages with well-off bores Josh and Kitty (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss). It’s not until they settle in that evening that a family shows up on the front lawn. A call to the cops and Duke’s Dave wielding a bat does little. Soon the summer home is invaded and the Wilsons are looking at four versions of themselves, each dressed in a red Michael Myers jumpsuit and holding mother-sized pairs of gardening shears.

Only Addy’s twin can speak; the rest make only animal noises. But their intent is clear: Separate and exterminate their original. It’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” done Jason Voorhees style.

The real fun here is watching Lupita Nyong’o play Addy and her evil “tethered” twin. She’s amazing on both sides of the equation, and it’s nice to see the Oscar-winning actress (“12 Years a Slave”) take full center stage. Duke, who costarred with Nyong’o in “Black Panther” (2018) is up to the task as well, and Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex cast as the Wilson kids are convincing both as imperiled humans on the run and the shadow demons looking to replace them.

While “Us” revolves around a black family in a largely white setting, it doesn’t have the sociopolitical punch that “Get Out” had. When Addy asks her evil who they are, she replies “We are Americans.” Perhaps it’s a light reference to equity disparity? It doesn’t matter – “Us” is best seen as a straight-up chiller that’s well crafted and fantastically acted. As Peele pulls back the camera and the plot widens, the film doesn’t quite hold its spell. Sometimes horror films on the lake are best when they stay by the lake.