It is a dark and stormy night. You wake up among a pile of bodies in the bottom of an open pit. You have no memory of who you are or how you got here.
You have a ring of keys. You have a Zippo lighter.
You find a gun. It’s loaded. A woman throws a rope down to you.
The woman is gone. There is a house in the distance with the lights on. You hear people talking inside.
GO TO HOUSE
You are at the house. The front door is unlocked.
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Aliens is one of the easiest templates for a low budget sci-fi thriller. Just gather some sci-fi props, secure a shooting location, and figure out what to do for your monster. In the case of Armed Response, these are, respectively, an RV, a warehouse and, uh, they’re invisible. The invisible monsters bit is a great way to save money. Or you can also just pretend something infects or haunts some of the characters. Now they can be your monsters. To its credit, Armed Response splurges on a couple of bad CG sequences late in the movie involving ghostly arms. Literally arms. Not weapons. But actual arms. That’s your reward for sticking with it. Continue reading →
The basics of Killing Ground are as old as Deliverance. So, uh, 1972, I suppose? When you’re out in the wilderness, beyond the range of a 911 call, it sure is scary that some psycho could try to get you! In the absence of civilization, there is no check on murderous chaos, right? Dog eat dog. Survival of the fittest. Plenty of movies play on this fear. It’s often crass, but effective. Backcountry and Blue Jay are recent dingy little horror movies to that effect. Wild brought it up in a wonderfully unexpected way. Australia’s brutal contribution was Wolf Creek, a horror movie with an uncompromising serrated edge so effective that it spawned a (not very good) sequel and a TV series (that I have no desire to see).
First-time Australian filmmaker Damien Power revisits the same territory in Killing Ground. It’s nothing if not familiar. When you’re out in the wilderness, beyond the range of a 911 call, it sure is scary that some psycho could try to get you! But Power ruthlessly stakes his own claim. Continue reading →
If you’ve been waiting for an opportunity to watch Rooney Mara eat pie for ten minutes, you’re in luck! Arty director David Lowery has returned from his stint making a movie in which things happen (the Pete’s Dragon remake) to bring us this eulogy to anything happening. A Ghost Story is literally a story about a ghost, which opens up a lot of possibilities. None of them are explored. Instead, everything and nothing happen, leaning mostly in the “nothing” direction. The minutes pass like years, the hour like a millennia, and yet there are still a few scenes to go. Then you don’t get to read a fortune cookie. Roll credits.
A Ghost Story is pretentious, ponderous, and curiously boxed into a very square aspect ratio with curved edges. I think it’s supposed to invoke the time someone made you watch slides of their vacation. The movie also invokes getting stuck in the kitchen at a party while some boorish hipster with overalls and pierced ears spools out his penny-ante nihilism. It invokes it by making it actually happen. The guys just goes on and on and for some reason the scene doesn’t cut. It’s enough to make you long for the pie-eating scene.
A Ghost Story is in limited release. Not limited enough.
You know that trick where you ask someone to spell “most”, then you ask them to spell “boast”, then you ask them what they put in a toaster, and then they say “toast”? Which is wrong because — gotcha! — you put “bread” in a toaster. It’s a dumb mental trick that plays with how your brain anticipates information. It sees certain things and then pre-loads itself based on your ideas of structure and patterns. It gets ahead of itself because it has spent your life accumulating expectations. Shimmer Lake is an intricate exercise in structure and expectations. It’s also one of the tidiest and most fiendishly clever crime thrillers since Fargo. Continue reading →
In the movie Curve, Dancing with the Stars dancer Julianne Hough gets trapped in a car wreck while a psycho killer stalks her. Her leg is stuck, so she isn’t going anywhere. This makes things pretty easy for the psycho killer, but there’s still about an hour of movie left, so a bunch of stupid stuff happens. The Curve I’m talking about is not that one.
This Curve is a short film by Tim Egan, an Australian cinematographer whose short didn’t quite make the cut in ABCs of Death 2, so it was chucked into a B-side release called ABCs of Death 2.5. Having already seen 52 ABCs of death, of which maybe 10 aren’t terrible and 3 or 4 of those are actually good, I didn’t have it in me to watch another 26. I might have to rethink my decision after watching Egan’s latest short film, Curve.
Curve is a horror movie about friction. Literal friction. The principle of physics governing the movement of two surfaces in contact with each other. But being a thoughtful horror short, it’s not really about what it’s about. I’d say it’s a metaphor for the human condition, but of course I would, because I’ve taken a few too many undergraduate philosophy classes. Some habits are hard to shake. Still, I can’t help but think that Curve is to short films what No Exit is to the theater. But unlike a production of No Exit — those characters are so annoying — Curve is mesmerizing, memorable, and ultimately slick. And it only takes about ten minutes of your time.
You can watch Curve in its entirety right here on Vimeo.
It Comes at Night puts a family in a Petri dish and focuses a microscope on it. “Come take a look at this,” it says, its face betraying nothing about what you’re going to see. Is it an insidious virus? A cure? Something baffling? Or some meaningful new discovery?
At first glance, it just looks like another post-apocalypse. Continue reading →
It might sound trite to relate this war movie, written with keen insight by someone who served during the invasion of Iraq, to a videogame. But consider that the videogame in question was also written by someone with keen insight into the wars America has fought since 2002 (actually, since 1965).
I’m going to list a few facets of our situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each of these is a part of the story in Sand Castle and a gameplay mechanic in Afghanistan ’11. It’s going to sound disjointed, so you’ll have to trust me they come together as a narrative in both the movie and videogame.
Here goes: Continue reading →
I don’t mean to imply that Lady Bloodfight isn’t dumb, inconsistent, and familiar. It kind of is. The basics are nothing that haven’t been done a thousand times with everyone from Jean Claude van Damme to, uh…who’s doing these kinds of movies these days? John Cena? I haven’t been keeping up.
But for this kind of dumb, inconsistent, and familiar, Lady Bloodfight is as good as it gets.
Heck, better! Continue reading →
In the usual horror movie, a monster stalks its victims. Will it get them? When will it get them? How will it get them? What even is it? A Dark Song is the inverse of this forumula. The lugubrious soundtrack that would normally promise Something is coming instead promises Something is being steadily approached.
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I own an unwatched copy of Barry Lyndon because it came with a Kubrick collection I bought a long time ago. I didn’t buy it because I felt the need to own a Kubrick collection. I bought it because it was cheaper than buying 2001, Full Metal Jacket, and Dr. Strangelove separately. Those are two movies I love (half of 2001, half of Full Metal Jacket, and the entirety of Dr. Strangelove is two movies worth of movies). Clockwork Orange is quaint for how it was once considered scandalizing and for the synth Beethoven. I didn’t appreciate The Shining until recently. Eyes Wide Shut is like that scene in The Shining where Shelley Duvall sees two furries having sex, but drawn out into a full movie starring movie stars instead of furries. Like everyone else under 80, I’ve never seen Paths of Glory.
There. Now you have my Kubrick bona fides. Continue reading →
I’ve been looking for Hailee Steinfeld for a while. I thought I caught a glimpse of her as an unlikely bridge between Kristen Wiig and Guy Pearce in the morose romcom Hateship Loveship. If she was in that Romeo and Juliet that no one saw with a Romeo no one has heard of, I wouldn’t know. I didn’t see it. Could that have been her in Ender’s Game, playing fourth fiddle to Asa Butterfield, something no one should ever have to do? 3 Days to Kill was a showcase for the easy cool of Kevin Costner’s post-leading-man charm, but wasn’t that her giving it a little emotional gravity to offset McG’s McGness?
I seem to recall she might have been one of the lost faces in that dull swirl of girl slop called Pitch Perfect 2. Continue reading →
The centerpiece, heart, and bedrock of Macon Blair’s playfully blood simple black comedy is actress Melanie Lynskey. She plays the sweetly aggrieved Ruth, suffering the injustices of daily life with baby-faced resolve (you’d never guess it’s been nearly 25 years since Heavenly Creatures). She comes home from work every day to drink Coors, read Game of Thrones, and seethe about how everyone is an asshole. Something’s got to give.
There’s a subtle point almost hidden in Blair’s script. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore begins on the day Ruth stops taking medication for anxiety and depression. It’s not a decision she intended. The movie doesn’t even call attention to it. But given her terrible day, given that her anxiety and depression are abruptly unchecked, no wonder her mid-life crisis is of existential proportion. No wonder she breaks down at the fact of astronomical insignificance. No wonder the movie has an Alice in Wonderland quality. When percocet and religion briefly enter the picture, it just gets curiouser and curiouser.
This is where Blair’s second act introduces a picaresque cast of white trash villains and accomplices, with Elijah Wood and David Yow as standouts. The location happens to be Portland, but the setting could be any red state with a Green Room off in the woods. Ruth is to rural America what Jeff Goldblum is to Los Angeles in Into the Night, or Jeff Daniels to New York City in Something Wild: having a midlife crisis and liable to do something reckless.
It’s a little eerie how physically similar Lynskey is to Macon Blair in Blue Ruin. They could be siblings. They both have the same dejected brown-eyed soulfulness. You just want to hug them. “You have such beautiful black little eyes,” someone tells Ruth.
“Okay,” she allows politely.
Lynskey is also in XX, a pretty good horror anthology, called XX because the five directors are women and chromosomes don’t make for confusing movie titles at all. Annie Clark’s segment, The Birthday Party, is mostly a set-up for a punchline, but it works because it’s focused on Lynskey playing the same kind of sweetly aggrieved and eminently watchable protagonist. I mean, seriously, sit Lynskey in front of the camera, set it to a soundtrack, and you’re 90% of the way to a movie.
Blair is a little unsteady getting his footing on the tightrope of black humor. Sometimes I Don’t Feel at Home pinwheels its arms and sways more Napoleon Dynamite than Fargo. But when it’s poised on that razor’s edge of Fargo, it’s dead-on. For instance, few movies manage the endearing inanity of Lynskey’s exchange with David Yow during a climactic showdown. And Blair knows how to orchestrate nutso sequences of unintended action and unexpected consequence. Tarantino, the Coen brothers, Rube Goldberg, and the NRA would be proud.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Some people get in a car and drive to a remote location to have a horror movie. The location is modest, self-contained, and not nearly as impressive as it should be. The cast is small, of varying degrees of attractiveness, and not particularly talented. The script has no interesting ideas. The director has no insight. The movie is terrible. You stop watching it halfway through. It will be frozen in your Netflix account at the 40-minute mark forever.
The Snare is this with a twist: the script does have interesting ideas and the director does have insight. The movie isn’t terrible. It’s not particularly good, but it’s certainly not terrible. It sneaks decisively past the 40-minute mark.
Writer/director C.A. Cooper is working with limited resources. A third of his cast is sedate to a fault. The other two thirds are grating. The location is hilarious. The script calls for an isolated holiday getaway, but all the production can manage is someone’s two-bedroom flat. So it’s up to the cast to pretend they’ve totally found an awesome place to hang out for a few days. It even has a TV set with a 14″ screen! Sweet! The exterior is carefully framed to exclude the apartment buildings next door. From the balcony, you can see the neighboring buildings. Anyone trapped up here could just yell to the next house over to call the fire department to bring a ladder.
But if the model for most bad horror is seminal crowd-pleasers like Friday the 13th, Paranormal Activity, or The Exorcist, the model for The Snare is The Shining. This is a director who hasn’t just seen The Shining, but he understands it and he uses it as a template for a nasty little tale about rotting away. Despite his limited resources, he knows how to shoot and construct a creepy slow-burn that relies on unnerving instead of startling. He prefers sickly instead of lurid, nauseous instead of gorey, decay instead of violence. Cooper knows to get under your skin instead of in your face. Someone give this man a better cast and a bigger budget.
Writer/director Julia Ducournau’s spectacular debut movie, Raw, will get lumped in with a genre known as body horror, which is where gross stuff happens to someone’s body. That’s too bad, because it’s a genre rife with cheap gore, shock value for shock value’s sake, and godawful movies that seem awfully proud of the point they’re trying to make, much like a toddler would be proud of a bowel movement. And there’s really not a lot of room for subtlety in body horror. No one ever accused David Cronenberg of subtlety.
But Raw’s body horror is not its priority. It is only its vehicle. Raw is less interetsed in the grossness of biology than the urges that drive it. Like Prevenge, an upcoming (and unfortunately not very good) movie about pregnancy, Raw considers the unique dilemma of women besieged by the primal force of, well, biology. Although it doesn’t shy away from explicit gore, it skips past what would have been its goriest scenes. Not just because imagination is more powerful. An unforgettable and thunderously scored epiphany scene doesn’t leave much to the imagination. But because a fundamental facet of sexuality, over and above any act, is identity. Not what you’ve done, but what you feel. What you want.
I both have and haven’t said enough. The average review of Raw will ruin at least two of its reveals. Every trailer I’ve seen will ruin about a half dozen. Finding out what Raw is about is best left to Ducournau’s confident, stylish, and unnerving filmmaking, and actress Garance Merillier with her Rose Byrne doe eyes.
Although Raw isn’t ultimately body horror, it does earn a place in French extremism, which is just a fancy way of saying, “Damn, there are some people from France who really get horror!” Like Martyrs, still a bleeding edge of French extremism, Raw is about three or four things by the time it’s over, each building on the other in unexpected ways. But unlike Martyrs — or anything else in French extremism — Raw is curiously poignant, even tender. Heh, tender. Now I’ve said too much.
Raw is currently in limited release, hopefully at an arthouse theater near you.