Tag Archives: Horror

The Black Phone

24 Jun

The Black Phone’: Its ’70s retro trappings aside, supernatural-tinged thriller might not grab you

By Tom Meek Thursday, June 23, 2022

“The Black Phone” is a neat dial-back to the indelible sound and style of the 1970s, but as a quirky bit of horror it’s all posture without much bite. Director Scott Derrickson, who helmed Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” (2016) and exited this year’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” during pre-production, adapted a short story by Joe Hill (son of horror-meister Stephen King) as a straight-ahead BTK creepshow with co-writer C. Robert Cargill. There’s few red herrings or inventive twists, and very little character development. The film’s shining asset, aside from the allure of the era and devil mask worn by the central boogeyman, is the strong performances by its young cast members, namely Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw as an imperiled brother and sister.

We embed with Finney (Thames) in late-1970s Denver, where several kids have gone missing, black balloons left each time as the perp’s signature. Gwen (McGraw) has visions of the kidnappings and post-abduction torture, but parents and friends at school move around as if there’s no peril on the streets. Finney’s more concerned about the bullies who often corner him at school, but he’s got king ruffian Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora) watching out for him, because Finney’s good at math and helps Robin with schoolwork – until he’s “grabbed,” as the John Wayne Gacy of Denver is a devil-masked magician known as The Grabber, played by a hardly recognizable Ethan Hawke (“First Reformed,” “Boyhood”). Finney awakes in a “Saw”-like basement dungeon where there’s nothing but a mattress and the disconnected device of the title hanging alone on a scummy wall. The Grabber pops in every now and then to menace Finney, and the phone begins to ring. On the other end are previous victims, who also appear as bloody apparitions to give Finney clues and hints as how to survive The Grabber’s games, and possibly escape. Some of the advice is odd: to break into the back of a freezer that’s locked on the other side, or stuff the phone receiver with dirt to give it “heft” as a weapon. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see an old rotary phone in action again; but do 6 ounces of soil add lethal mass?

More perplexing is The Grabber’s brother, Max (James Ransone), who is unaware of his sibling’s misdeeds but for some reason has launched an amateur investigation into the disappearances and who The Grabber might be. Then there’s Finney and Gwen’s dad (Jeremey Davies, “Spanking the Monkey”), an odd olio of inconsistent parts. Initially he lands as alcoholic trailer trash trying to beat the visions out of Gwen (ma had the gift too, and it led to her death) in the name of Jesus, but later assumes the mantle of concerned, caring father. It doesn’t click, and I’m not sure Davies or Derrickson ever really had a sense as to how to play it. The Grabber too – the whys and whats never get meted out. It’s a huge hole that makes the film almost pointless. The saving grace is the chemistry between Thames and McGraw as siblings struggling with the loss of their mother and their father’s addiction and intermittent cruelties. Much is asked of Thames, and he delivers. Comparisons to “Stranger Things” are expected considering the adolescent focus, eerie dangers lurking just beyond eyeshot and that hip, retro throwback to an era of fond (or not so fond) notoriety. It’s fair, but know that Hill’s short take was woven a decade before the hit Netflix series began streaming.

Crimes of the Future

3 Jun

‘Crimes of the Future’: Familiar themes are fuel for more delicious creepiness from Cronenberg

By Tom Meek Thursday, June 2, 2022

It’s been eight years since David Cronenberg last made a movie. That film, “Map to the Stars” (2014) and his previous effort “Cosmopolis” (2012) were decidedly un-Cronenberg-esque, not that the director hadn’t stepped away from his psycho-horror roots before (“M. Butterfly,” “Naked Lunch” and “A Dangerous Method” among the many). The good news for Cronenberg purists – those who admire “The Fly” (1986) and “Dead Ringers” (1988) but burn for “Scanners” (1981), “Videodrome” (1983) and “Rabid” (1977) – is that “Crimes of the Future” marks a devilish return to the director’s fetish-fueled eroticization of gore and body mutilation. “Dead Ringers” and “Videodrome” stand at the head of that list, but more visceral and perhaps even more erotic than “Dead Ringers,” if that’s even possible, is Cronenberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel “Crash” (1996) about ecstasy seekers who literally get off on others’ mangled flesh and scars from willfully triggered automobile collisions. If the title piques your Cronenberg sensibilities, it was the title of his lightly regarded feature from 1970; while it has some thematic overlap, it’s not the same movie.

“Crimes” lands us in dystopian near future, when people grow new organs inside their bodies as a hobby. Pain is no longer an impediment and surgery, we’re told, “is the new sex.” The film centers on Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen, Cronenberg’s go-to collaborator, their best and finest being the 2005 crime drama “A History of Violence”), a renowned performance artist whose jam is growing radical organs in his abdomen and having his amour, Caprice (Léa Seydoux, dour and stunning), remove them onstage for an intimate underground audience to ooh and aah over. In context and theme the film weaves together Cronenberg signatures almost as if it is a farewell celebration of sorts: There’s that noted sexualized fetish frenzy from “Crash,” the notion of “the new flesh” from “Videodrome” and even an internal organ beauty pageant, something that was touched upon in “Dead Ringers.” Of all Cronenberg’s varied works, however, “Crimes” is most akin to “eXistenZ” (1999) with its array of skeletal, buglike animatronic devices that perform surgery and cocoon Saul at night to help nurture his new organs into being. Those sets and designs were eerie and surreal back in 1999 but now feel a bit dated and gimmicky, if not hokey. That said, the concept of evolution police and a national registry of new organs (they’re tattooed and tagged) intrigues, as well as the sub-race of what we might call mutants who can, with organ manipulation, consume plastics and other industrial waste – a handy parlor trick that doesn’t get explored enough in the context of plastic atolls or climate change.

The driving force of “Crimes” is Mortensen’s weary yet soulful performer, pasty, wan, vampirelike and forever in a cloak like a grand wizard. There’s a heaviness he bears from a clear physical and emotional toll. He’s a man on edge and asked much of by many; those at the registry (a breathy Kristen Stewart and an excellent snappy, nerdy Don McKellar) who fawn over his work and want more (even to be part of his show), the police (Welket Bungué) who want to put a lid on radical organ generation, and the leader of those plastic-consuming rebels (Scott Speedman) who wants Saul to feature the body of his murdered son in one of his pieces. What Saul wants is unclear, though you can feel his camaraderie and passion with Caprice. In one of the more arresting  scenes, after having old-school sex with her, Saul brushes the act off as something of a burden and blessedly archaic, which is the true crime of Cronenberg’s future vision. 

X

18 Mar

The golden age of porn meets up, violently, with the original era of the slasher flick

By Tom Meek Thursday, March 17, 2022

Filmmaker Ti West (“The Innkeepers”), part of a mumblecore/mumblegore pack with Joe Swanberg (“Drinking Buddies”) and Adam Wingard (“You’re Next”), goes solo with this homage to “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” – the 1974 original, not the slack update available now on Netflix. The setup in “X,” which takes place in the 1970s and is shot in grainy era style by West and longtime cinematog collaborator Elliot Rockett, is simple: A bunch of young adult filmmakers see the lucrative advent of the home video market on the horizon and rent a ramshackle lodge on a farm to make their own porn opus, “The Farmer’s Daughters.” The cheeky film-within-a-film pays its own homage, this time to flicks featuring Marilyn Chambers and her golden-age-of-porn contemporaries. Of course the old couple they rent the space from aren’t in on the whats and whys, and like “Deep Water,” that Adrian Lyne project appearing on Hulu this week, sex without full consensual buy-in by all parties has deadly ramifications.

In sync with “Fresh,” another recent Hulu release, “X” is something of a cinematic double clutch, two movies fused into one. In “Fresh” we go from rom-com to horror flick halfway in, which is where the credits roll. Here we amble along with the raucous lo-fi porno filmmaking fun until Pearl (the name of the actress under the mound of latex shall remain unnamed), the elderly woman who owns the property, catches a glimmer of an athletic sex scene from outside a window. Despite the preacher perpetually barking about morality on her TV up in the main house, the peep does not educe anger but instead incites lust. It’s also here that Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), the girlfriend of the film’s camera operator (Owen Campbell) who fills in on sound boom duty,  decides she too wants to get in front of the camera for a rigorous romp with the film’s lead (Kid Cudi, “The Harder They Fall”), much to the chagrin of her beau. “It’s just business,” quips the film’s producer, Wayne (Martin Henderson, a dead ringer for Matthew McConaughey in form, inflection and demeanor), something he knows something about – his girlfriend Maxine (Mia Goth, “High Life” and “Suspiria”) is one of the two daughters (Brittany Snow, sassy and excellent, is the other) who hook up with a strapping passerby (Cudi). Before any division can work its way through the crew, one of them goes missing. There’s some devious, decaying funk down in the basement of the main house and the seniors, well into their age-spotted 80s (it’s 1979, and he served in World War I), aren’t quite as feeble as their creaky, hobbled lopes initially indicate; and you know that big gator down in the pond is going to have something to say at some point.

The concept of creepy elders orchestrating dirty deeds is nothing new – just see M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Visit” (2015). It’s an effective genre changeup, but it’s still genre and the part of the film where the pitch and degree of awe start to ebb. After first blood is spilled you know it’s a domino chain to the bloody end, and there’s little Q as to who the sole survivor will be. West, clearly enraptured by his characters and the setting, filmed a prequel about Pearl simultaneously and seeds the workings for a sequel as well. The real wonderment of the film, beyond the stellar performances, lie in the framing and editing. Also, interestingly enough, the small town in Texas isn’t even in the Americas, it was shot in New Zealand.

Nightmare Alley

18 Dec

‘Nightmare Alley’: Escaping from the carnival into noir with a savage Cooper and Blanchett

By Tom Meek Thursday, December 16, 2021

Guillermo del Toro dusts off Edmund Goulding’s 1947 B-tier noir starring Tyrone Power and gives it a lush polish with rich reds and a house-of-horrors ambiance. There’s a sense of wonderment in there too, but that’s mostly reined in by the constraints of the noir form and the seediness of carny life. Set in the mid-1930s, “Nightmare Alley” is a scrumptious, set piece-driven experience to drink in, which should be no surprise given de Toro’s penchant for opulent dial backs such as “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006) or “The Shape of Water” (2017). The film’s blessed with one heck of a cast to boot. The twisted yarn, based on William Lindsay Gresham’s novel, focuses on Stan (Bradley Cooper), a mysterious drifter who becomes a carnival hand with a traveling operation. After capturing the show’s escaped geek – a wild man whom we do get to witness biting the heads off chickens – Stan gets an elevation of sorts from the show’s owner (Willem Dafoe) and cozies up to Zeena (Toni Collette), a clairvoyant, and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn), bedding the former and lifting the tricks of the trade from the latter before endearing himself to the show’s demure ingenue, Molly (Rooney Mara).

It turns out Stan’s not quite that quiet, earnest guy we first meet, but a man hot with ambition and devilish drive to get what he wants. It also turns out that “Nightmare Alley” is something of a double-shift narrative. The first half is something of a Horatio Alger story fused with Tod Browning’s creepy 1932 tale, “Freaks.” (Here, along with a geek roaming the tents and cages there’s a pickled baby and cyclops boy, and Ron Perlman as the strong man). After Stan takes leave of the carnival and becomes a mentalist performing in swank nightclubs, the film moves into full-on noir mode when he meets his match in the femme fatale form of Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a socialite and psychiatrist. She’s onto him, and he’s intoxicated by her social stature and overpowering sense of confidence. There’s an air of feral sexuality whenever the two jockey for an edge. Soon the target becomes Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), a wealthy power broker in Ritter’s sphere, and “Nightmare Alley” turns into a succession of confidence games with a few dark and deadly secrets tumbling out along the way. As good as Blanchett and Bradley are and are together (Flick alert: Cooper is a raucous treat as Jon Peters in the upcoming “Licorice Pizza,” and Blanchett gives another great micro turn in the end-of-the-world satire, “Don’t Look Up” streaming as of Dec. 24 on Netflix), their chemistry gets diluted by plot machinations and the restrictions of the genre. There’s just not enough emotionally at stake; it’s great pomp, sans the punch. It still works, mind you, but as a viewer you sail through the film enamored with the filmmaking and performances without being pulled in by flaws, desires and dreams.

A Quiet Place Part II

31 May

‘A Quiet Place Part II’: After an explosive start, back to a world of even more menacing silence

By Tom MeekFriday, May 28, 2021

Maybe the long-delayed release of John Krasinski’s sequel to his surprise 2018 horror flick hit “A Quiet Place” wasn’t such a bad thing (but yes, Covid, terrible). It gave us more time to distance ourselves from the novelty of human-mauling aliens who can home in on a target only by sound. They were formidable and terrifying then, and are again. “A Quiet Place Part II” opens before the last film did, giving us the cataclysmic landing of the aliens – an ominous, fiery streak across the sky before the first batlike incarnation with a maw full of needlelike teeth chows down on the first denizen of a sleepy upstate enclave. We see familiar faces (Krasinski’s dad, Emily Blunt’s mom and Millicent Simmonds’ daughter) hurrying for shelter and an existence in total silence – one branch crack or a sudden sneeze and you could be lunchmeat.

“Part II” is just as taut and lean as its predecessor. It covers a lot of ground in 90-plus minutes. After a sudden alien invasion that triggers the fall of civilization as we know it, we jump forward to Day 474 since that fireball hit as the Abbotts, or what’s left of them – Evelyn (Blunt), her children Regan (Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe), and a newborn baby – are still holed up in an old farmstead. At night, they send up a fire signal that is eventually answered. From there, as in most post-apocalyptic films in which death can strike from a dozen angles, it becomes the duplicitous agendas of lawless people that becomes as lethal as the voracious raptors that lurk, waiting for a too-loud footfall to be an impromptu dinner bell.

There are some nice new additions here: Cillian Murphy as Abbott family friend Emmett (we catch him at a Little League game in that preamble), a grizzled, hirsute loner who’s lost much, and Djimon Hounsou as a fierce father and one of the rare bastions of human compassion. In this chapter too, the kids move to the fore, undertaking quests and protector roles that ease the burden on mom some. The film splits into multiple threads, and a few feel unnecessary, but Krasinski and his team of editors keep it tight and adrenaline-pumping. In a world where silence is more than golden, it’s the only means of life,  big roles are played by elements such as a bear trap, a first-aid kit just out of reach, a vial of much needed antibiotics and a safe room that needs to be opened every five minutes to avoid oxygen starvation. Water and boats do too, but to tell you much more would be to ruin the fun. Simmonds, so good in the last film, again makes the case for future work; and of course Murphy, with those liquid blue eyes piercing through the dirt streaks and matted hair, brings a conflicted soulfulness to his grieving father. As the film ends you know for sure there’s a “Part III” coming. You can almost see it opening with Day 500

Army of the Dead

17 May

‘Army of the Dead’: We’re off to a Las Vegas heist, but technically it’s impossible to make a killing

By Tom Meek Thursday, May 13, 2021

Netflix's 'Army of the Dead' will make you root for the zombies. Their  lines are better.

Zach Snyder, the man behind the cinematic resurrection of Superman and the launch of the “Justice League” franchise, cut his teeth on zombie fare with the 2004 remake of George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead.” One of the eye-popping twists in that update was that the undead weren’t your typical shamblers – they could move at superhuman speed, and had agility and much greater strength than the sagging bags of carrion in films that came before. In his new “Army of the Dead,” Snyder delves back into that bag of tricks, and in the process turns the Vegas strip into a hive of hidden horrors akin to the hellacious labyrinths plumbed in the “Resident Evil” series.

The film opens with a military convoy taking an asset to a secret location in the Nevada desert. As happenstance and an act of fellatio have it, the package – an alien-zombie incarnation that seems like an escapee from John Carpenter’s 2001 “Ghosts of Mars” – gets loose and turns Sin City into a zombie colony. Though it’s walled off by the U.S. Army, efforts to clean and reclaim the Strip fail and nuking it gets a stamp of approval. In that week before the drop, a wealthy mogul named Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) approaches former military ops hero Ward (Dave Bautista), now slinging burgers, to assemble a team for a mission to fetch $200 million sitting in a vault that only Tanaka has the blueprints for. Ward is doubly invested in the grab and go, as his daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), is working at a camp outside Vegas where people assumed to be infected live in military-monitored migrant camps. 

From there “Army of the Dead” proceeds in a pretty straight-up fashion: Navigate the flesh-chomping hordes, a zombified Siegfried & Roy tiger and the zombie king (that alien) and his queen, get the cash, grab Kate and chopper out before the area becomes a mushroom cloud. Kinda like a video game, and likewise solid if predictable genre fun. 

Of the colorful recruits, the standouts are mostly Omari Hardwick (“Sorry to Bother You”) as the heady Vanderohe and Tig Notaro, bringing a dash of Jane Lynch comedic relief to the mayhem as the capable chopper pilot. The film’s best parts are that opening scene and the elongated credit sequence chronicling the fall of Vegas as a quirky cover version of “Viva Las Vegas” plays. I’m not sure if Snyder was reaching for something deeper with a zombie king and queen and the seeming foundation of a zombie civilization – they do seem to communicate and have lawful order. It adds a dash of intrigue and of course allows for the assemblage of the entity of the title. In it all, you know there’s a few hidden agendas (think “Alien”) and aptly at one point, The Cranberries’ “Zombie” rolls; it feels like a too obvious choice, like “Viva Las Vegas,” but they both fit poetically as flesh is ripped from bone by tenacious cannibalistic maws.

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.