Tag Archives: Horror

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.

Mandy

17 Jan

‘Mandy’: Hunting for revenge in the woods from hell raisers that forced him to see red

 

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Barry Manilow’s timeless classic will never sound the same after you drink in this midnight cult curio that’s the bloody union of arthouse horror and a bad ’70s head trip. You can already stream it for a fee on Amazon, but the rich artistic palette of red and black (it would make a wicked, stomach-churning double feature with the recent “Suspiria” reimagining) and Nic Cage’s gurgling snarls are best suited for a full, immersive theater experience. “Mandy” is wicked mayhem that’s certainly not for all, and the unwary curious will undoubtably have to avert their eyes during the graphic scenes of ritualized sacrifice, but it’s getting served up regardless for a three-day weekend run at The Brattle Theatre starting Friday (late-night shows only).

Shot in Brussels, but ostensibly taking place in the cold, remote hills of someplace like New Hampshire in the early 1980s, “Mandy” pulls on a battery of horror-genre tropes without feeling ersatz or anemic. Much of that’s due to Cage’s overstuffed performance and director Panos Cosmatos’ relish for revenge, rage and raw imagery. Like “Last House on the Left,” Cage’s Red Miller and his gal – the subject of the inspired title – Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) are a relatively chill couple living a spare simple life out in the woods. He logs, she’s an artist. But one day the leader of a nomadic cult known as the Children of the New Dawn (Linus Roache, from TV’s “Vikings”) catches a glimmer of Mandy and decides he wants “that.” The baddie here doesn’t have a cool name like Silas (like the cult leader from recent Nicole Kidman cop drama “Destroyer”) but Jeremiah Sand – perhaps uninspired names and titles are a means to lull before the spectacular Grand Guignol to come? But he’s far more the real deal when it comes to the macabre, be it mad, prophetic pontifications or slow, bleed-out crucifixions. Needless to say, Jeremiah, his followers and a loyal pack of S&M-clad minions whipping through the woods on dirt bikes and ATVs get their hooks into Mandy, which naturally sets off Red. 

Cage is perfectly over the top as the distraught, rampaging force of nature, and Cosmatos (his late father, George, directed the neo-classic western“Tombstone”) articulates every arterial spray and flesh-piercing plunge with prolonged, agonizing effect. Cinematically, the lush, dark camera work by Benjamin Loeb and the haunting score by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose CV includes “Arrival,” goes far to sell the delectably gonzo bloodbath.  Between brutal beatdowns and bind-torture tie-ups, there’s a smattering of hallucinogenic drug trips (most not taken by choice)  and plenty of death metal to underscore the backwoods mayhem. If that’s not enough, there’s sword fighting with chainsaws, with one opponent wielding a woefully undersized blade. The political or theological agenda of the Children of the New Dawn is never clear, but that’s beside the point; like “Suspiria” or “Race with the Devil” (1975), it’s all about giving it back to the occult freaks so gleefully demonic and drenched in innocent blood.

Between Red’s acumen for bloodletting and Cosmatos’ pushing of boundaries in glamour gore, “Mandy” is poised for near-instant cult classic status. Sadly, not enough time’s allotted to Riseborough, who’s in something of a breakout season with this, “Nancy” and “The Death of Stalin.” The film revolves around her, though she’s never really here. And then there’s that Manilow song; go see “Mandy” and then cue up Barry’s song and see if its texture, tone and tenor isn’t knocked off its old familiar base.

Bird Box

22 Dec

‘Bird Box’: Talent stumbles down blind path with thriller that leaves bit too much unseen

 

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Much will be made about the similarities between “Bird Box” and a “A Quiet Place,” which at once is understandable and also a complete crime. Sure, both take place in the wake of a near-future apocalyptic event – in “A Quiet Place,” sightless aliens who look like “Venom” extras are snapping up the last of humankind; in “Bird Box” it’s … well, you never really know what it is, and that’s the bulk of why the film never really takes hold, feeling ultimately like a cheap parlor trick. How can you have something wiping out humanity and not know what it is? An airborne virus, radioactive fallout or the sudden lack of oxygen – things we’re aware of, operating outside the purview of the eye, sure, but something that rattles forest shrubbery like a Bengal tiger, causing leaves to whip up, but is never seen? That’s not going to fly.

It’s actually floating that proves to be the final desperate measure as a mother and two children drift haplessly down a river, hoping for a new beginning yet never able to see around the bend. The other big surprise to “Bird Box” is the impressive throng of talent involved – and their inability to lift the project. The unexceptional script written by Eric Heisserer, a scribe who not too long ago adapted another slack sci-fi story (“Arrival”) into a sharp, thinking person’s flick, adheres hard to the flat source material by rocker-turned-novelist Josh Malerman. There’s plenty of gold in the mix too: Lead actress Sandra Bullock has an Academy Award to her credit, and director Susanne Bier also has Oscar pedigree from her 2010 Danish film “In a Better World.” What gives? For one, the producers probably held Heisserer to the best-selling book for fear they might disenfranchise their ready-made target audience. It doesn’t help that Bier shoots this in a way that feels more like a TV miniseries than a big-budget, two-hour, end-of-the-world burn. Continue reading

Overlord

10 Nov

‘Overlord’: Remember, Greatest Generation also had Nazi zombies to deal with in WWII

 

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You can think of “Overlord” as “The Dirty Dozen” by way of “28 Days Later” – that’s right, the WWII zombie apocalypse. The film starts with an imaginative bang and keeps its nose above the average even while dipping into genre tropes.

We catch up with a platoon of lads soaring above the D-Day armada heading for Omaha Beach. Their mission: Drop behind enemy lines and take out a radio tower in a medieval church or the U.S. air cover will get picked apart and the assault will fail. There’s a lot on the line. I’m not sure why there’s a few dozen planes on this mission, because stealth would make more sense, but it makes for the film’s best scene as German forces light up the approaching aircraft. The choreography, both in CGI manipulation and the goings-on with the boys inside as large-caliber bullets rip through the fuselage, amazes; cut frenetically with deafening ambient sound, it feels ripped right out of “Dunkirk.” Few make it to the ground alive (you could call it “The Dirty Half-Dozen”). After a few skirmishes with Nazi forces, the lads Boyce (Jovan Adepo); the squinty, badass explosives expert Ford (Wyatt Russell); wisecracking New York tough guy (think Joe Pesci) Tibbet (John Magaro); and a couple of other Star Trek red shirts get into the small village with the help of a comely village girl (Mathilde Ollivier). She takes them in, but what’s up with auntie’s reptilian rasping from behind closed doors?

Boyce ultimately makes it into a church basement, which is pretty much Mengele’s little shop of horrors if he was trying to engineer a zombie army of grotesque berserkers. The whole thing feels like a game of “Wolfenstein” gone 3D, but more grim. It’s here too that the film starts to sag, though there is tension added by the fact Boyce is black – no way to blend in among white supremacists (though otherwise, pretty much nothing is made of race). “Overlord” is largely Adepo’s film, and he carries it well, with both wide-eyed terror and heroic resolve. Magaro and Ollivier are also quite good in their limited stints, but Russell, filling a role akin to his father Kurt’s badass John Carpenter roles in “The Thing” and “Escape from New York,” doesn’t quite seal the deal. The part begs for more swagger. It works, but just barely, and is something of a missed opportunity for all.

The film, directed by Julius Avery, is a product of J.J. Abrams’s Bad Robot company, though Abrams has stipulated adamantly that it’s not a “Cloverfield” film. The connection between those entries is arcane at best anyhow, and something of a distraction. In construct, “Overlord” is more ambitious than those films, and its production values noticeably higher; but, then again, it’s about the fate of the democratic world hanging on the resolve of a bag of mixed nuts caught up in zombie-land.

Suspiria

1 Nov

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The remake of Dario Argento’s cultish 1977 European gothic steeped in the gory dealings of the occult operating within secret passages of a German school of ballet, gets handled with great care and extra visceral crunch by fellow Italian countryman, Luca Guadagnino. Guadagnino, regarded for his subtle nuanced human inflections in such critically well-received works as “Call Me by Your Name” and “A Bigger Splash” delves into the aural moodiness of the horror genre with bloody aplomb. Here he and writer David Kajganich take it deeper than Argento did in his witch trilogy (“inferno” in 1980 and 2007’s “Mother of Tears” starring his now infamous daughter, Asia) by adding human layers, deeper suspenseful intrigue and allowing Tilda Swinton to play multiple roles, including an elder gentleman who has scenes of full-frontal nudity (no penile prosthetics were hurt in the making of this film).

The setting is inspired as well. It’s 1977, the same year as Argento’s signature work made it onto screens, and in West Berlin as news on boxy TVs tell us the Red Army and Baader-Meinhof gang are in full swing, let alone the looming strong arm of the Iron Curtain and Cold War in dark corners. In short, anyone can go missing at anytime and there’s a myriad of possible culprits, the least obvious being a covenant of witches. At the onset we catch up with a harried young American woman named Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) who tells an elderly physician (Swinton as that ) that she’s pretty sure the ballet school she’s attending is run by witches. Shortly after Patricia goes missing and Dr. Klemperer wrestling with his own personal daemons that root back to the Holocaust begins to poke around and alert the police to strange doings. Continue reading

7 Apr

 

John Krasinski, that local (Newton) guy from “The Office” whose forays behind the camera have been something of a mixed bag – tackling material from David Foster Wallace in “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” and the quirks of returning home to small-town America in “The Hollars” – goes for a total change-up here in genre, style and the whole shebang. He’s also grown demonstrably in confidence as a filmmaker, bringing his A-game for an impressive wallop and gets a chance to work with his wife, Emily Blunt, who’s nothing short of fantastic.

“A Quiet Place” drops you into a post-calamity spot that feels all too close, given the current state of division and fear in the country and creeping need to think about how to survive a civilization-crumbling war or sweeping, sudden natural disaster. We catch up with a family out on a scavenging mission to get medicine and supplies. Inside a ransacked pharmacy, they’re all barefoot and don’t speak to each other as they go about their task. Mom (Blunt) picks up and puts down pill vial after vial with all the deliberate care of one of the silent thieves in Jules Dassin’s great heist film, “Rififi” (1955). The lack of spoken communication and the worry etched on the faces of the nuclear-plus family ratchets to a nerve-racking tic. Wandering about on his own, the youngest boy reaches for a toy space shuttle that lights up and beeps, but dad (Krasinski) is fast on the take and in sign language sternly tells him “No.” Outside, they remain silent and walk single file, never veering from the painted white center line of the road. Along their amble through a rural country-scape we see no other humans and soon learn why – after a noise emitted unwittingly by one of the party draws something formidable and fast out from the woods, and the family is suddenly one less. Continue reading