Anna and the Apocalypse

Directed By John McPhail

Starring – Ella Hunt, Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire

The Plot – A zombie apocalypse threatens the sleepy town of Little Haven at Christmas, forcing Anna (Hunt) and her friends to fight, slash and sing their way to survival, facing the undead in a desperate race to reach their loved ones. But they soon discover that no one is safe in this new world, and with civilization falling apart around them, the only people they can truly rely on are each other.

Rated R for zombie violence and gore, adult language, and some sexual material

POSITIVES

– Sensational toe-tapping soundtrack. Since this is a musical above everything else, the music better be right on point, and thankfully the combination of Roddy Hart and Tommy Riley gift wrap us a series of spectacles that never trail on personality. The songs in the film are not only catchy, but lyrically cerebral in that they channel the pulse of the character’s inner thoughts at that particular moment. When the music is exceptional during a musical, it pushes a film that much further, and the quality of production and performance in favorite tracks of mine like “Break Away”, “Christmas Means Nothing Without You”, and “Soldier At War” all could easily be played on top 40 radio right now.

– Extremely likeable characters. Most of the reason for the enjoyment of these charming teenagers falls on the shoulders of the exceptionally talented musically trained actors who portray them, but I’d be doing a disservice if I didn’t mention how the film does a remarkable job of displaying their hopes and dreams. Hunt’s Anna is a dreamer we can embrace because we’ve all felt muddled in the shallow waters that we were born into, and seek new adventures somewhere just beyond the rainbow. But despite her name being in the title, this isn’t JUST Anna’s movie, as plenty of time is invested in her surrounding friends and family who the movie values equally. Even more so, the rest of the ensemble harvest a variety of personalities and demeanors about them that make you crave more of the delightful dynamic between them that hits its mark every time because of energetic chemistry.

– Stunning special effects work. It’s clear that the budget isn’t anything of blockbuster level here, as much of the zombie sequences limit the make-up’d actors in frame, however what little we do get provides enough bang for the buck in the areas of make up and prosthetics. None of the patterns of decomposition ever feel like they obviously repeat, nor do they struggle at capturing the scarring of blunt force trauma. On this subject, the film has no shortage of creative kills that surprisingly indulge us in the physical side of the red stuff, instead of computer animated like we’ve been trained to. This gives the film easily its biggest desire to be R-rated because the kills are performed in devastatingly invasive fashion, providing several scenes that will make you wince.

– Not afraid to take chances. Part of the thing that really floored me about the much more riveting third act of the movie is how it’s not afraid to put a price tag on any character who comes into frame. Without spoiling anything, I will say that it’s obvious not everyone makes it out alive here, but who we lose along the way will provide a couple of heartbreaking instances where it pleasantly tries to distance itself from the many survival films that came before it, and successfully so.

– Originality in lighting and set pieces. Without question, my single favorite aspect of the film is the presentation and backdrops that add a lot of fun to the technical aspects of the film. Despite being a brief 87 minute movie, the story takes us through a barrage of town landscapes and institutions like a bowling alley, a Christmas tree store, and of course the auditorium inside of the kid’s high school, and each of these presents a new series of adversities for our group of characters, allowing the ability to keep the action fresh in its creativity. In addition, each of these are highlighted by Christmas light style lighting that gives the scenes they accompany a distinct and familiar glow that effectively channels the Christmas season.

– Post credit animation sequence. Be sure to stay all the way through the closing credits, as we are treated to a few familiar scenes from the movie that are played out in zany animated textures. The animation used is almost pop-up style decor, all the while catering to familiar physical traits of the actors that close the gap between live action and animated renderings otherwise feeling so foreign. It serves as the perfect closed door on a movie that never struggled in capturing the fun and airy atmosphere that only a musical can provide.

– A breakthrough performance. Ella Hunt is no stranger to the silver screen, acting in over twenty films and TV shows to date, but it’s her work here that has allowed her to breakthrough the stratosphere to the other side of inevitable A-list names. As the title character, Hunt instills a combination of grief over the loss of her Mother, and ambition for something different to her predictable existence. Hunt’s angelically deep eyes and tomboy persona make her the kind of girl we all need in our lives, but it’s the transformation into this killing machine where it’s probably best we stay away. Well done Ella.

NEGATIVES

– One big disappointment. If I pointed to one thing weighing this movie down negatively it’s the undercooked humor that missed its mark nearly every time. I laughed twice during this movie, and I blame a lot of that on a film that so desperately wants to be “Shaun Of the Dead” without the confidence in material to understand its audience. I mention that movie because there are uncanny similarities in the two films, from something as small as zombie fake-outs in sound, to something big like near-identical humorous deaths. I wish the movie could’ve developed the humor muscle of the movie a bit tighter, as the lines intended to tickle fall flat at almost embarrassingly bad levels.

– No developed urgency. This of course changes during the pivotal third act, but so much of the film’s first two acts lack the kind of danger or devastation needed to understand the magnitude of this situation. This is where the musical designation might do harm in bringing together music and horror accordingly, as the tracks act as a pause button during the scenes of tension, feeling like an abused pause button by the characters that always allows them motivation in evening the odds. I could’ve used a death or two somewhere early on to keep these leads and the audience on their toes, but unfortunately you will be waiting until the final twenty minutes of the movie for things to get interesting.

– Hammered home final message. This is usually incorporated by spoon-fed narration that the film, nor us the audience need to understand the point, but here the producers of the film repeat a song from earlier on that is so clearly obvious that it made me angry for how little of confidence the crew had for me. The irony of the situation is satisfyingly evident without the assistance, and if they ended it just with that, the film could’ve bottled more of that positive energy that it couldn’t afford to give away.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

The Possession of Hannah Grace

Directed By Diederik Van Rooijen

Starring – Shay Mitchell, Grey Damon, Kirby Johnson

The Plot – A shocking exorcism spirals out of control, claiming the life of a young woman. Months later, Megan Reed (Mitchell) is working the graveyard shift in the morgue when she takes delivery of a disfigured cadaver. Locked alone inside the basement corridors, Megan begins to experience horrifying visions and starts to suspect that the body may be possessed by a ruthless demonic force.

Rated R for gruesome images and terror throughout

POSITIVES

– Ominous setting. In casting a majority of this story at the morgue, we get to play with shapes and shadows in way that very few other locations can give us, in terms of atmosphere. As we saw in “The Autopsy of Jane Doe”, a morgue is the perfect place in channeling isolation and seclusion, and this film continues that thought process. While the film does commit the same cinema crime of limited workers at a hospital, it more than makes up for it in neon red lighting and what feels like never-ending hallways, to give the audience enough tease before the taste.

– Elaborate attention to detail with the make-up work. Unfortunately, most of Hannah’s joint-crunching movements are computer generated, but there’s still enough imagination and gory detail to the suffering of Grace to visually tell her history. The gaping wounds have a lot of depth to the concept of early stage scaring, and the protruding presence of immense veins act as a map to Hannah’s tortured psyche. This is an aspect to the film that won’t get enough credit, based on its limited documentation in the sloppy camera work, but if you look close enough, there’s plenty of range in the form of cosmetic appeal.

– Sound mixing that caters to echoes. For my money, the film’s only slight scares come in the form of overbearing silence, which periodically increase with each passing second. The things that go bump in the night are accompanied by what feels like the morgue’s internal heartbeat, and this builds the suspense appropriately, before Hannah pops up every once in a while to capitalize. In fact, I would’ve been fine without any kind of musical score for the movie, as these sounds more than articulate the tension that is so thick you must cut it with a knife.

NEGATIVES

– Amateur camera work that hinders any kind of horror impact. Each time Hannah appears on-screen, we are confined to these ugly looking shaky camera effects that not only make it difficult to focus on the telegraphing of each sequence, but also give the film an overwhelming layer of cheap production value to its effects work. I was hoping that this was only a temporary inclusion at the beginning of the film, during an exorcism sequence, but unfortunately it stays with Hannah like the worst kind of cheap odor.

– Gaping plot holes. Early on in the film, the screenplay shows us Hannah’s capabilities with telekinesis, and it makes every other scene of conflict with Megan not make sense because of how this talent never comes into play with our central protagonist. This is a cliche that always drives me nuts in horror films, as an antagonist appropriately loses their powers when it matters the most, treating the audience like idiots who haven’t been paying attention up to this point. The only way to fix this is to give Megan a reason why Hannah is keeping her alive, but it sadly never materializes, thanks to minimal character development that is sparse even for forgettable B-movie horror characters.

– There is absolutely zero reason for this film to be rated R, considering the presentation constantly limits the payoff. The violence is never detected because of the shaky cam, there’s no nudity considering Hannah is naked for almost the entirety of the movie, and there’s not one instance of adult language that ever invades our first grade dialogue. Very few horror films anymore attain the coveted R-rating, and it’s sad that “The Possession of Hannah Grace” does nothing to enhance its story by receiving this rare gift.

– What an ugly looking film. The daytime scenes have this dreary cinematography quality that made me have to squint every time I needed to focus on a visual matter. Likewise, the scenes where something is going on in the background are constantly out-of-focus, providing emphasis for just how much time and care was put into such an important project. This all pales in comparison however, to Sony’s usual lack of subliminal advertising. Yes, we once again have Sony computer screens that adorn the many investigation scenes in the movie. In general, it’s vomit behind every corner, leading overall to one of the weaker visual presentations of 2018.

– Horrible acting and character direction. As I mentioned above, there is limited character exposition throughout the film, but even if that weren’t the case, the poor work of this nameless, faceless cast does itself zero favors in carving out people we can truly get behind. I feel bad calling her out alone, but Shay Mitchell is in control of roughly 90% of this film, so the blame mostly falls on her. Mitchell can’t act her way out of a paper bag, refusing to ever channel even a shred of believable emotion to these paranormal experiences that are happening to her. Hannah’s dead body getting up to walk is reacted by Mitchell like she just stubbed her toe, telling you everything we’re going to get in terms of versatile performances. Likewise, the supporting cast lack personalities or presence, making them every bit as forgettable as the 1984 Democratic nominee.

– Not an exorcism film. Don’t be fooled in the slightest by the trailers for this movie; this one is a slasher movie that just happens to feature a possessed woman. Cementing this manipulative direction, the scene that is usually the climax of any possession movie happens in the opening five minutes of the movie, and what follows never comes close to even that heavily borrowed sequence from other, better possession movies. I have never seen a possession movie where the possessed have telekinetic powers without even touching them, and this evident feeling gave me an idea that this movie was re-written at the last minute to accommodate a direction that feels foreign to everything else in its clutches.

– Am I on drugs? I asked this question frequently during the editing of this movie, which feels like it oversteps boundaries to limit this to 81 minutes. Scenes that feel like a long struggle is coming, are surprisingly put away quite easily, aggressive cutting in between these scenes of important dialogue restrict us from ever building chemistry between any two respective characters, and there’s never any form of consistency to etch out this editor’s specific style. It all remains constantly spontaneous, keeping the film confined as a series of scenes, instead of one cohesive unit that moves together.

My Grade: 3/10 or F-

The House That Jack Built

Directed By Lars Von Trier

Starring – Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman

The Plot – USA in the 1970s. We follow the highly intelligent Jack (Dillon) over a span of 12 years and are introduced to the murders that define Jack’s development as a serial killer. We experience the story from Jack’s point of view, while he postulates each murder is an artwork in itself. As the inevitable police intervention is drawing nearer, he is taking greater and greater risks in his attempt to create the ultimate artwork. Along the way we experience Jack’s descriptions of his personal condition, problems and thoughts through a recurring conversation with the unknown Verge, a grotesque mixture of sophistry mixed with an almost childlike self-pity and psychopathic explanations.

Rated R for strong disturbing violence/sadistic behavior, grisly images, adult language, and nudity

POSITIVES

– While I certainly have my displeasures from Von Trier as a director, there’s no mistaking the artistic merits that he brings to an otherwise 70’s B-movie homage that the film is enveloped in. Aside from Lars variety of scene-appropriate lenses that gives the film a constant air of unnerving nature, he brings with along an artistic side of brutality that many directors are afraid to glorify for fear of backlash. This makes Von Trier certainly someone who always fully commits to his projects, and no matter how you feel about the final cut of his films, you have to admire his maverick method of filmmaking that garners with it an indulgence of the unorthodox.

– Role of a lifetime for Dillon. This is certainly a one man show, and Matt keeps the focus on him by emitting this calm-yet-deranged serial killer who is unlike anyone he has portrayed before. Jack’s bone-chilling blank stare is only surpassed by the ferociously calculated measures he takes in subduing his prey. Likewise, I also enjoyed seeing a killer who suffers from O.C.D, and it certainly made for some poignant predicaments that only add to the unfurling tension in every scene. Dillon puts an unmistakable stamp of personality on the title character, balancing this dynamic of menace and intrigue for the character that never falters throughout nearly two-and-a-half hours of screen time.

– Violence turns to symbolism. Aside from these graphically violent scenes, that were incredibly blunt and closely shot to keep you from ever looking away, there is an underlying narrative from history that the film does play off appropriately, to those paying attention. Jack clearly represents Dante, the infamous Italian poet, and the film serves as a representation from arguably his most important poem “The Divine Comedy”. Through the many steps of the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise, this intended direction finally became evident to me, and being that I was the lone person in my theater who enjoyed the hell out of “Mother”, I too took great pleasure in another modern day narrative of a popular religious fable.

– Many people in my theater were complaining about the tonal inconsistencies in the film, but I found the humorous side to the violence and on-going narrative to be more than appropriate in mirroring the material. Jack has this uncanny interaction with people that truly shows the stupidity associated with the human race, and it allows us these welcome moments of release in laughter, after these devastating scenes of impactful macabre. Because of this, I think the film has more appeal when you’re watching it with a large group of friends who can bounce reactions off of one another, instead of sitting down alone for a film that limits the ability for the lunacy of the material to carry over. This showed me that even as pretentious of a director as Lars often is, he’s not afraid to poke fun when it’s required.

– From a serial killer perspective, very few films even rattle the surface of this one, in terms of depth for the psychological stance of the character. Broken up in five meaningful chapters to fruitfully fill in the gaps of how his killing has evolved, the film invests time and layers to cracking the very ambiguity of killers that deserves more conclusions than just saying “They were born that way”. This aspect is without a doubt my favorite of the film, and even with all of the food-for-thought provided, we feel like the complexity of Jack never suffers because of it, leaving plenty of poignancy in the his past BEFORE the film that could use a prequel of its own.

NEGATIVES

– Lars “Pretentious” Von Trier. Has there ever been a director who is up his own ass like Lars? That trend continues in “The House That Jack Built”, as the film not only breaks off on these insanely long diatribes for Lars to comment on many of the world’s current day problems, which is interesting considering the film takes place in the 70’s when none of these issues were prominent in the world, but the director even halts progression of the film midway through the second act to show clips from three of his previous movies. This is on a whole other level than being egotistic, and Von Trier’s overindulgence of himself is his own worst enemy when it comes to the stories he tries to convey.

– Horrendous pacing. For the first hour of this movie, I was very much glued to the screen, as the first two incidents of Jack’s story pushes us right along in keeping up the fluidity and entertainment factor for the film. Then in the second act, it feels like the consistency of the pacing reaches sluggish levels, suddenly feeling like the incidents don’t play as much of a role in the conversation piece that Von Trier leaves this movie for. In addition to this, the film’s quest to feel like twelve years over the trail of this movie feels unfulfilled, never showing visual aging or a feeling in the values of storytelling that ever makes it feel like a year, let alone twelve have passed.

– Redundant soundtrack. I love “Fame” from David Bowie as much as anyone else, but Jesus Christ how many times did this song need to be played throughout the film? It’s nice to know that one song was constantly on repeat on Lars Ipod, and what’s even more annoying is that it adds no context outside of being a song from the 70’s. I will give credit to the….well credits, as it may be the most convenient context to “Hit the Road Jack” that I’ve ever heard.

– Convoluted dialogue. When I say I could easily trim thirty minutes of this film from the stuffy atmosphere of the narration alone, I mean it. So often during the film does the same visual show, or the same line of character exposition beaten us over the head until we’re screaming it ourselves. The production team must think pretty low of its audience, because the last time a sentence was repeated this much to me, I was in first grade, and the bladder control I maintained through both sits made them too irresistible not to compare for this negative.

– This is the first film that Von Trier split into two halves, so as to focus more prominently on the editing. And while that may be the intention, the finished product makes for Von Trier’s arguably worst edited movie to date. Abrupt cuts in the middle of important dialogue feels like a distraction, continuity between cuts couldn’t be further from cohesive, and there are sometimes far too many cuts for one particular sequence. In the action genre, this would be considered vertigo, but the over-anxiousness of a finger firmly pressed on the edit button is something that creates enough problems for the progression of this movie; mainly that it’s complicating matters with a screenplay that is otherwise played straight from the hip, in terms of its structure.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Overlord

Directed By Julius Avery

Starring – Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Ollivier

The Plot – On the eve of D-Day, American paratroopers are dropped behind enemy lines to carry out a mission crucial to the invasion’s success. But as they approach their target, they begin to realize there is more going on in this Nazi-occupied village than a simple military operation. They find themselves fighting against supernatural forces, part of a Nazi experiment.

Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing images, adult language, and brief sexual content

POSITIVES

– Not your typical horror movie. Considering how this film was marketed, it’s greatly surprising to me that above all else it is an exceptional war film first, with a lot of substance in creative storytelling and filmmaking to match the buckets of blood, to which there is no shortage of. With a combination of grainy footage and propaganda-like introduction and conclusions, it’s clear that time and attention to detail were firmly invested in this finished product. This location of Germany isn’t just one that is approached from on a surface level, we very much live and breathe inside of the dread that feels like a fog over this country, giving depiction to an environment that can only be described as the darkest level of hell, far from anything conventional.

– Bar none, the very best sound mixing in 2018. “Overlord” thrives with the kind of pulse and intensity that leaves little to no suspension of disbelief on the field of battle. I say this because there are many scenes where it’s difficult to hear character’s speaking, especially when combating the aggressive noises of airplanes and gunfire that overcrowd the senses. Through the many war sequences involving what feels like an unlimited amount of rattling explosions, the film’s crisp vibrations rivet you, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the kind of environment that we’re being shown. Watch this one with the very best sound system theater that you can find, because Avery takes no prisoners.

– Jed Kurzel’s best work in years. Considering this is the same man who penned the musical tones in 2014’s “The Babadook”, it comes as no surprise how much he relies on increasing volume to consistently charge the suspense in every scene. Kurzel’s score feels like it never subdues, instead constantly building over a minefield of thrashes and bangs that follow our protagonists down long hallways in the same manner that their opposition does. I can’t give enough credit to Jed’s constant presence throughout the film, elevating the waves of vulnerability in such deep waters that it’s difficult to ever pull yourself out of.

– Last man standing. While I commend the work of Adepo’s character struggle between being this soldier and the man he used to be, I was more glued to the wild card of Russell (Son of Kurt) as the biggest badass these eyes have seen in quite sometime. Considering this is the same man who played a throwaway stoner in “Everybody Wants Some”, I find it impressive how he is able to constantly play against type, and taking on roles that never typecast him or leave him confined to just one genre. His work in this film was a treasure to watch, as he never relents under the mission at hand. He may be conflicted as a protagonist, and even slightly a loose cannon, but it’s that unpredictability that makes him difficult to shake, and his presence proves that Wyatt was having the time of his life with this particular role.

– My favorite scene in the movie. It would usually worry me when the best scene in a movie is the opening ten minutes, that takes us through an arrival into Germany that depicts war in the very gruesome dangerous environment that it rightfully is, but this fact instead tells you everything that you are getting into with the rest of the 105 minute picture. In this sequence, we are given impeccable cinematography that moves through air and water with such persistence to the characters, a stunning series of visuals that capture that anxiety associated with war, and a sense of strategy that articulates how armies move throughout. Avery sucks us right in, and we fall for it like kids taking carnage candy.

– Consistency is the key. What’s impressive about two such genre opposites, like war and horror, is Avery’s ability to keep the consistency of the tone, because after all, war is exactly that. It has the ability to turn men into monsters, like the movie so bluntly does, and never does this sacrifice the smooth pacing or urgency of the elements, instead carving out a maniacal sense to our Nazi antagonists that we already know from history. Other films struggle at a mid-movie switch, but this one feels cohesive in how it matures its material, from a battlefield strategy piece to a zombie splatterfest that never missteps for single second, thriving more the sillier the story takes us.

– Much of the violence, especially in the third act, feels every bit as grimacing as it does cathartic. This element alone gives the film enough audience investment, whether they embrace or wince at the unapologetic nature of the film’s gore. Either way, it is a blast to watch it all go down, and capitalizes on some of those promised Summer blockbuster thrills like “The Meg” or “The Equalizer 2”, that only remotely lived up. This one is a ferocious fall frightener that constantly exceeds even the highest of audience expectations.

– Strong combination of practical and computer generated effects. What’s most impressive is that there were times when this film expert couldn’t tell the difference, and I think that says a lot to the kind of budget devoted to this supposed B-movie that constantly overachieves. For my money, My favorite is in the complete transformation of one Nazi lieutenant, who wears the wounds of torture he has suffered as a badge of reminder against the very same man who gave it to him. It gives the character a Frankenstein style look of permanent reminder to the audience, to play into the transforming effects of the potion that have their own facial altering features.

NEGATIVES

– Rushed fight sequences. With so many positives on the presentational aspect of the film, it’s a bit of a letdown that the conflicts in action are so underwritten and thinly developed. With the exception of the very last fight of the movie, the rest around it begins and finish with little emphasis for the burning drama of character well-being. Never does it feel like our protagonists are in trouble, and even worse the resolutions are repeated quite often, so that midway through the movie you can already telegraph what will happen before it does.

– One-dimensional characters. While I had enough enjoyment from the characters in the film, mostly because of the film’s exceptionally talented cast that lift the miniscule backstory into honorable territory, the overbearing sense of neglect that these soldiers receive is alarming. The main character (Played by Adepo) never feels like the focus in his own movie, instead playing second fiddle to Russell’s executioner corporal, who feels like more of the conflicted protagonist necessary to lead by example. The problem is worse with the supporting cast, as some are given objects like a camera and a baseball to fill in the gaps for a lack of attention given to their forgettable presence.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

Suspiria

Directed By Luca Guadagnino

Starring – Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth

The Plot – A darkness swirls at the center of a world-renowned dance company, one that will engulf the artistic director (Swinton), an ambitious young dancer (Johnson), and a grieving psychotherapist (Ebersdorf) . Some will succumb to the nightmare. Others will finally wake up.

Rated R for disturbing content involving ritualistic violence, bloody images and graphic nudity, and for some adult language including sexual references

POSITIVES

– Successfully blazes its own trail. The 1977 version of “Suspiria” is one of my all time favorite horror films, so it’s safe to say that my expectations were high with this film. Thankfully, the overall presentation by Luca and company is one that establishes this as more of a re-imagining than the shot-for-shot remake that we’re used to. Because of this, this version is free to explore the strange and beautiful side of horror, free from the confines of an original film that was at the time the bar for artistic expressionalism for the genre. Some familiarity is still there for faithful fans, but Guadagnino proves he was the right man for the job because his version never feels restrained or limited to the game of compare and contrast.

– Emotionally stirring performances from a female dominated cast. Swinton is her usual scene-stealing self, portraying Madame Blanc with enough ferocity without ever feeling desperate or obvious. Swinton however is not who I want to focus on, as the duo of Goth and particularly Johnson are off the charts with their characters. Goth’s Sara gives us a tender supporting protagonist who we can believe in, and it’s in Goth’s haunting glow from her facial registry, as well as the command she has over the screen that makes this a major step forward for this gifted actress. As for Johnson, this is a star-turning role that she has been waiting years for, treading through awful movies left and right for the part that she was born to play. For Dakota, this isn’t just an emotionally riveting performance, it’s also a physically rendering one as well, and this combination builds towards one of the more riveting transformations that I have seen in quite sometime. You won’t believe what Anastasia Steel can accomplish when she breaks free from the chains of degrading nature.

– Entrancing visuals. In a year when “Hereditary” dropped our jaws completely in the final ten minutes of its film, “Suspiria” elevates its game to eleven, making the competition feel like a day at Disney when it comes to what it accomplishes. Being almost 34-years-old, not a lot scares me anymore, but the spectacle in macabre, and this ideal that something un-foreseen can possess your body, constantly gave me the kind of chills that I haven’t been treated to since I was a child. On top of it all, there’s artistic merit in said violence, that works beautifully alongside this form of dancing expression numbers that the rival the lighting buffet of the original movie.

– Meticulous exposition. There’s going to be many complaints that this film is jumbled or disjointed with its story arcs, but with some firm commitment to the developments taking place in front of you, it will all become clear by film’s end. For one, I appreciate a film that doesn’t hammer home every single detail to the audience, spoon-feeding us in ways that insults the intelligence of those it caters to. For two, I loved how these angles in story that originally felt so distant from those it was being told against, slowly started to form a pattern of why they were included in the first place. It all comes full circle in this moment during the climax that actually had me reaching for the tissues in ways I didn’t see coming.

– A student of the game. Aside from the accolades that I already commended him for earlier, Guadagnino’s biggest accomplishment is what he and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom are able to master in terms of dated camera work. I mean this as an impressive positive, as the entirety of the movie feels like it belongs in the same era of filmmaking as its 41-year-old original, presented in 35 mm film, and dazzling us in ways that didn’t seem possible with the sheen look of modern technology. The movements faithfully pay homage to said decade of film, radiating with a combination of sharp cuts, slow-pans, and wide frames that only further enhance the ominously unnerving atmosphere that the film cements for itself.

– Thom Yorke’s sinisterly audacious nightmare of a musical score. It’s hard to believe this is the Radiohead front man’s first work as a composer in a film, because everything works about the tones that underline the dread and despair that fills the sets like an airborne toxic. Yorke uses plenty of loud alarming instruments to gain our attention, but what keeps it is his repetitious work behind the keys of a piano that go hand-in-hand with shots that we focus on for so long until we demand to look away. There’s little in the way of value more than a composer who grasps his environment, and Thom’s initial descent into the world of film impressed in ways that give us a glimpse into the mind of a musical madman.

– The sound mixing and editing is also something that I greatly commend, for its psychological spin on the unraveling insanity surrounding us. Some of the characters can communicate telepathically, and this aspect is depicted with a stern echo that reminds us of its use. Aside from this, there are these quick buzzes and whispers that cloud the scenes whole, and are presented with such minimal value that had me wondering if I was going crazy. This bending and manipulation of the voices and sounds further articulate why “Suspiria” is a breed of its own, offering a psychological titilation in wonderment.

– Impressive effects work. There’s far too much to even list here, but I have to mention a surprise for yours truly. Yes, I am applauding the use of C.G blood for once, for the way its shading and release feel synthetic to that of the actual human body. Nothing feels compromising to the scene, or obvious by its inclusion, and what’s best is this aspect is rarely ever used until the final twenty minutes, when all hell breaks loose. There’s also detailed makeup work that really made me wince on more than a few occasions, for hideous character design, as well as abrupt violent impact that visually mimics the crunch from impeccable sound editing.

NEGATIVES

– Long, very long. Considering the original “Suspiria” was 98 minutes, it’s a bit of an investment for this newest one to clock in at 146 minutes. That’s a long time to ask of any audience, especially one with a story whose pacing is plodding and calculating like this one. For my money, most of the early second act could easily be trimmed and compacted down, keeping the finished product at somewhere around the two hour mark. I don’t mind long films as long as they remain entertaining, and there were a few slow parts during the film when I couldn’t help but check my watch.

– There is a push for poignant social commentary within the film that goes nowhere, and only feels a tad bit on the pretentious side of ambitious reaching. For instance, the mention and setting of the post-Nazi Berlin is something that could add layers to the world unfolding outside of the walls of all of this terror, but the film would rather tell and not show…..several times. I think a couple of scenes to soak up the mentality of the townspeople could’ve done wonders not only in the bloated run time, but also in the pacing of redundant scenes that could use a breather before progression.

My grade: 8/10 or B+

Halloween

Directed By David Gordon Green

Starring – Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak

The Plot – Laurie Strode (Curtis) comes to her final confrontation with Michael Myers, the masked figure who has haunted her since she narrowly escaped his killing spree on Halloween night four decades ago.

Rated R for horror violence and bloody images, adult language, brief drug use and nudity

POSITIVES

– John Carpenter’s lucid nightmarish return to form. This isn’t just a return to the silver screen for Curtis and Michael, it’s also one for the legendary composer, whose work on the first film still resonates with audiences forty years later. For his return, Carpenter stays true to form with the classic numbers, giving them a much needed upgrade as far as sound mixing and refurbishing are considered. But it’s in his collaboration with Daniel A. Davies that carves out what little atmosphere that the film has going for it, entrancing us with a serene sense of ominously terrifying inserts that amplify the tension in every scene of chase.

– Green is certainly a student of the game. While the film occasionally has problems toeing the line between respectful homage and downright theft, one thing is certain: David Gordon Green was definitely the man for the job. Green’s directing conjures up a sense of female empowerment rarely seen in classic horror films, but it’s definitely his eye for detail in replicating the look and presentation of Halloween that moved me miles artistically. An opening credits sequence, complete with identical text coloring and italics, remind us of the fear associated with the infamous day that Michael thrives on, and for a few minutes it feels right to indulge on nostalgia, if only for these simple-but-effective credits that competently set the precedent moving forward. Keep your eyes open for some familiar Easter eggs to past films, particularly my favorite trio of masks for the Halloween franchise that aren’t Michael’s.

– There has never been a character in this series that is remotely as interesting or developed as Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode, and in picking up the role for the fifth time in the series we have what might be her most complex portrayal yet. This is a Laurie that feels unavoidably scarred from that one night of terror that has defined her for better or worse over the past four decades, and given the once personable Strode an enveloping of strength and persistence that compares her to Michael in terms of her life’s mission. Curtis’s dry delivery and believable progression make her one of a kind in this modern day setting, and etches a general outline of what female heroines could and should be when in the hands of an actress who has grown with the character. Jamie nails the vulnerability AND the strength of the character equally, and this film would be garbage without her.

– Plenty of gore and creative kills alike. Many people might have a problem with the amplifying of the gore in this sequel that is anything but replicated from the 78 original, but Michael’s increased anger makes sense to me because this is very much a psychopath with a thirst to kill, who has been locked up for forty years. Think about what that building thirst feels like once you are out in the free world, and you understand why this is arguably the most dominant Michael that we have seen to date. Throw in some old school practicality with effects work and wincing props, and you have enough thrills in its grasp to make this a devilishly delicious treat in an era when creativity is often cut away from.

– As for Michael, the design of the mask finally feels right again, not feeling too white in coloring, nor too clean in terms of the weathering process. It replicates Michael’s becoming of the mask that the movie touches upon, making it easier to comprehend this as Michael’s actual face. What else is delightful is the passing of the torch generations with Nick Castle portraying Michael in the scenes he doesn’t wear a mask, and James Jude Courtney when he does. What I love about this decision is that it reminds us of Michael’s human side that the other films blurred for all of the wrong reasons. This is very much an aging man who still breathes that air of fire because of his life’s mission that has kept him going, and the combination of Castle’s still-frame complete with Courtney’s stalking movements, makes this the Michael from 78, whose cerebral psychology make him every bit as dangerous as his imposing stature.

– For my money, I would be fine with a one hour film that featured only the first and third acts of this film. I say that because the whole movie is built around this inevitable confrontation with Laurie and Michael that does fortunately pay off in more ways that one. For one, there’s this incredible setting inside of Laurie’s house that has, for better or worse, become a panic room of sorts, and gives Michael a lot more to fight against rather than the typical house that he can manipulate the shadows with. This final battle not only lives up to expectations, but lives up for all of the reasons you’re not expecting. I won’t spoil what happens, but if this is the final Halloween, count me pleased.

NEGATIVES

– The dreaded second act. There’s about thirty minutes in this film that is every bit as unpleasant as it is unnecessary, and a lot of this has to do with this overabundance of filler that adds nothing to character or consistency with the rest of the film. Laurie goes missing for a few scenes, and is replaced with this awfully forced humor and dialogue that repeatedly tested my patience. If this wasn’t enough, a late act decision that violently changes an unimportant and borderline disrespectful character came and went like it had no lasting effect on me what so ever, and only highlighted how faulty this screenplay was when it tried to present something different.

– Speaking of different, there’s not a lot of it in this film. I mentioned earlier about paying homage to the Halloween franchise with these brief and weightless Easter eggs, but what doesn’t work is when you are literally duplicating scenes from other Halloween films, some of which aren’t supposed to exist in this canon, and playing them off in a way that feels desperate. This makes this movie possibly the most forgettable of the Halloween series, mainly because it doesn’t carve out a unique voice of its own, relying far too much on the success of past scenes and screenplays that were left in the past for obvious reasons.

– It’s amazing that after forty years of the knife-wielding psychopath, writers are still interested in the why without understanding that the mystery of Michael is what makes him intriguing as an antagonist. The scariest killers are the ones that happen just because (Think The Strangers), and traditionally the more you find out about Michael, the least fascinating it is. This film, while not as drastic as Rob Zombie’s for reveals, continues this annoying tradition, wasting valuable minutes along the way to paint a picture that I don’t ever require to make me enjoy one of my favorite on-screen killers more.

– Unanswered question. To anyone who has seen the ending of the 1978 “Halloween”, you’ll know that Michael gets away before the camera fades to black. So my question is what happened after to get Michael captured in this film. The movie never elaborates on this aspect, and we’re left to fill in the gaps where the screenwriters won’t. In my opinion, I would’ve liked to have included the events of “Halloween 2”, and explain that Myers burning body was rescued in the nick of time. Two attacks would also add to the believability of Laurie’s now fragile state, and keeping the brother and sister angle would explain Michael’s obsession a little more clearly with Laurie.

My Grade: 6/10 or a C

Hell Fest

Directed by Gregory Plotkin

Starring – Bex Taylor-Klaus, Reign Edwards, Tony Todd

The Plot – A masked serial killer turns a horror themed amusement park into his own personal playground, terrorizing a group of friends while the rest of the patrons believe that it is all part of the show.

Rated R for horror violence, and adult language including some sexual references

POSITIVES

– Captivating set designs. In capturing the imagination and detail associated with the haunted house attraction, Michael Perry dazzles us with limitless space opportunity and expressive decoration props to perfectly articulate the hostile surroundings. On top of this, the lighting features everything from a strobing effect to distract, to a variety of coloring to give each scene artistic merit. It’s a reminder that B-grade horror doesn’t always have to settle for limited accentuation within its world building.

– Purposeful jump scares? Anyone who knows me, knows I despise jump scares in horror films, but the ones in this film work because (after all) that is the gimmick associated with the setting. What I love is that the psychology behind the jump scares are more for the characters inside of the movie, and less as a tease for us watching at home. Because of such, the scares never feel timely or predictable to us because they are catering to just the world depicted inside of the screen, and not worrying about constantly breaking the fourth wall. It’s something I commend this film for greatly.

– Hard-R. Many mainstream films don’t receive the coveted R-rating anymore, mainly because they are seeking a wider age range in audience to fill their seats, but ‘Hell Fest’ whets our appetites repeatedly with an overabundance of gore that stems from some exceptionally creative kills. I challenged this film repeatedly to shy away from depicting where each devastating blow was headed, and never once did it succumb to the pressure of the standards of a flawed ratings system. There’s also great teasing and struggle leading up to them that increases the tension and urgency tenfold, and never allows the moment to evaporate with one quick blow. It chews up the scenery with repeated confidence, and this element gave this horror hound lots of satisfaction repeatedly.

– Consistency in pacing. ‘Hell Fest’ certainly isn’t a difficult watch by any stretch of the imagination. It’s an 84 minute movie that constantly keeps breezing through a barrage of ever-changing landscapes and pulse-racing atmosphere to keep the attention firmly planted on the screen. Never during the film was I ever bored or distant from what was transpiring, nor did I feel like the allowed time did a disservice to the story itself. It’s a great way to burn an hour-and-a-half off of your day.

– Bear McCreery’s almost operatic score. McCreery is someone who is quickly becoming one of my favorite composers in film, and his work in this film is more proof for the pudding. Bear’s amplified compositions ignore subtle nuance and instead instill a ranging vibrancy for the variety in environments. Yes, this is all happening under the roof of one location, but the many themes inside the park are given enough respect from Bear to keep their music marginally different, and without them ‘Hell Fest’ wouldn’t earn even a fraction of the elevated tension that it frequently earns.

NEGATIVES

– Convenient plot devices. One aspect that disappointed me and took away from my growing enjoyment of the film was in the many conveniences that Plotkin forces us to endure, which even for a horror film are a bit of a stretch. This is as popular of a park as you can imagine, yet there’s only our ensemble cast who we ever see interacting in these attractions. Yes, we are given exposition in the form of V.I.P passes, but never on any park on this planet would this angle work for a single day. There’s also an angle with the killer’s shoes that makes it conveniently easy throughout to pick him out whenever he is trying to hide or blend in. As well, the killer isn’t exactly as wise as the film paints him out to be. Several times he does himself a disservice by allowing a character an easy escape, or just plain out walks away from them after he strikes.

– Lack of characters/bad acting. The work from this cast is offensive even for a campy, B-grade horror film. Their over-the-top personalities and selfish instincts repeatedly rubbed me the wrong way, and made it easier for me to embrace the film’s antagonist to kill them off one-by-one. Much of this can be blamed on the total ignorance of backstory or exposition from the film, but the fresh-faced cast often make it unpleasant to spend even one moment with them. These are people who I myself would never spend one evening with in my personal life, so being forced to endure them without distraction is a test I often failed.

– As for the killer himself, there’s nothing remotely satisfying about his big reveal that makes the juice worth the squeeze. His arsenal in weaponry is quite bland, his costume is something that could be put together at Costco, and any wave of clarity or logic for his hatred of haunted houses is never further elaborated on. Without spoiling anything, there is a scene near the end of the movie that I think implies to paint that this guy is a regular human being like you or me, but that still doesn’t even attempt to piece together the motivation for such a sporadic hobby, and just kind of sends us home on an emptying wave of air that slowly omits itself from the momentum of this film.

– One and done. Cameos from legendary figures in horror films are certainly nothing new, but the way Tony Todd, A.K.A The Candyman, is shuffled on and off screen during this film is downright insulting. Todd is given relatively high billing for the film, and is reduced to nothing more than a one-off scene that leaves no lasting impact. When you have a name like Todd’s, you go all out, and for my money I could’ve used more background for his role as the host of this terrifying attraction.

– The film’s premise, while nothing original by the genre’s standards, really goes disappointingly unexplored. One could argue that this leaves room for future installments, but much of the creativity associated with dissecting what is real and what isn’t in the park is never further elaborated on, removing many opportunities for fake-out scares and mysticism for the setting that I felt this movie desperately needed. For my money, establishing a one-man killer early on only limits the potential of paranoia within its walls, and leaves a general underwhelming feeling going forward that kept the scares very rudimentary.

5/10

Lizzie

Directed by Craig William Macneill

Starring – Kristen Stewart, Chloe Sevigny, Kim Dickens

The Plot – In 1892, after the Borden family welcomes a new Irish maid called Bridget Sullivan (Stewart), she and Lizzie (Sevigny) become friends. The friendship between these women becomes something more and that is not only falling in love, at the same time they’re are both victims of physical and sexual abuse from Mr. Borden. But tension in the Borden household, leading to a violent breaking point.

Rated R for violence and grisly images, nudity, a scene of sexuality and some adult language

POSITIVES

– A different take. While there are certainly no shortages of Lizzie Borden movies to quench the audiences thirst for answers on the mysterious night in question, ‘Lizzie’ takes an alternate approach in direction and tone that I greatly appreciated. This film is a star-crossed lovers story of sorts, between Lizzie and Bridget, that overrides some of the horror tendencies that you might be preparing yourself for, going in. I found this direction to not only be a fresh take on a century old story, but also one that pays off immensely for the artistic opportunities that the film capitalizes on.

– Macneill has such a subtle tenderness about the way he depicts this blossoming relationship, shooting the romance with more respect than a story like this would normally feel capable of. For one, the moves of affection feel carefully timed, springing to vision an evidence of fear that is evident in both leading ladies, but also enough glow from intimate camera angles that garner a much-needed essence to Lizzie as a character, and not just a hatchet-wielding maniac. Because of this, Craig puts emphasis in the focus of this story revolving around love, and it’s in that investment whether this film will grab you or not.

– Whirlwind performances on every spectrum. This film certainly feels like a group effort, in that every member of the immensely gifted cast bring their best to their respective characters. Sevigny captivates as the title character, with a plentiful combination of longing and menace that helps balance Lizzie’s disposition. It helps that Chloe is an actress who says so much in a single facial reaction, allowing us to soak up more of the suffocating atmosphere that swallows the character whole repeatedly. Stewart maintains the audience’s focus, with a turn as Bridget that has her feeling like the lone conscience of the audience inside of this toxic household, and Jamey Sheridan once again wonders with playing such a detestable lead that reminds us why he’s one of the best in the business at that particular role.

– Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is its script, which is hinged in this dialogue that makes you want to constantly pay attention to the character interactions, so as to gauge the many relationships. Like Bridget, we too are new to the engagements inside of this house, but once inside we firmly get a grasp for the troubled family’s environment that have riddled them full of trying secrets and desperate situations, and in this regard ‘Lizzie’ feels like a B-movie that Hitchcock might have helmed if his diminishing health didn’t cut his time in the public eye dramatically short.

– For my money, the nighttime sequences were the most eye-catching, for the way the lack of natural light invites us along to the things that go bump in the night. There’s a serene essence to the darkness that envelopes each scene whole, bringing forth the necessary scares that don’t require jumps or the paranormal to sell its taut, tense environment. The film never goes out of its way to feel like a scary movie gimmick, treating its visual capacity as nothing more than a stage for the madness that follows, and that’s something in patience that I commend this film greatly for.

– Composer Jeff Russo’s subtle ambiance in music that echoed the internal furnace of its title character. What Russo does that shouldn’t be understated is keeping his tones minimal in volume, never allowing his emphasis to exceed that of the situation that is playing out before our eyes. Beyond this, he audibly deciphers Lizzie’s feelings throughout much of what happens to her, allowing us the audience this necessary glance inside not only to comprehend, but also to anticipate what is coming next in her cryptic movements.

– Much of the costume work and designs also hit their desired marks, radiating the fashions of 1892 seamlessly. What’s even more appreciative is that these trends never go out of their way to sell the gimmick in the most extravagant of ways, choosing instead to mirror more of the three-piece Bohemian era suits and gowns that feel slightly outdated even for this particular year of setting. This sounds like a negative, but it actually provides layers for the character’s personalities, in that money will never be the whole picture to their well-being, and that subtle hint is something that I greatly marveled at.

NEGATIVES

– Even for a slow-burn, this film does test your patience repeatedly. There’s this very unnerving imbalance between the first and second halves of the film that divide its entertainment value ferociously, and I felt that with more concern paid to the plodding first half, the film’s final moments wouldn’t feel as much like a shred of lettuce for a starving hunger. The murder itself is satisfying, but ultimately not worth the thrill-less trail to get there.

– Trimmed down. This film originally was written as a four episode HBO series that was supposed to air a couple of years ago, and now that it’s a brief 101 minute feature film you can notice the constrictions to the story that rendered it a cliff notes version. Lizzie’s sister is introduced and barely included again throughout the story, Lizzie’s seizures are only touched upon on the opening ten minutes and then never again, and the backstory of Lizzie’s mother isn’t given enough respect to even be mentioned once in a passing conversation. This and many other tiers give the film an often impatient touch that unfortunately did nothing for its pacing overall, and for my money I think this story works better when it is allowed more time to cater to those side stories that help fill in the blanks slightly more.

– Differences in the real life story. I consider myself knowledgeable enough on the Lizzie Borden front, and because of such it was easy to spot the liberties that this film took with the cherished material. For one, the answers of the murder mystery itself has only been hinted at and never confirmed, so this movie’s ability to chalk it all up with nothing left to chance is a bit misleading and irresponsible. Another example is the film portraying Lizzie as this caring human being who took time to learn her help’s name, when in reality Lizzie was just as guilty as her parents with refusing to say their maid’s real names. This is a big deal to me when you’re speaking in terms of honesty for the material, and because of such, ‘Lizzie’ never feels like the whole story, just the parts that are convenient for its narrative.

7/10

Assassination Nation

Directed by Sam Levinson

Starring – Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse

The Plot – High school senior Lily (Young) and her group of friends live in a haze of texts, posts, selfies and chats just like the rest of the world. So, when an anonymous hacker starts posting details from the private lives of everyone in their small town, the result is absolute madness leaving Lily and her friends questioning whether they’ll live through the night.

Rated R for disturbing bloody violence, strong sexual material including menace, pervasive language, and for drug and alcohol use, all involving teens

POSITIVES

– Stylish introduction sequence that sets the precedent. The film opens with this stylish sequence that reminded me of exploitation movies of the 70’s, complete with audible narration and visual likenesses to tell you what’s behind its creative content. In this regard, it pretty much runs through every reason why this film is rated R, giving you a taste of the material before the storytelling has truly begun. This not only showed me that this film had a sense of humor, ala Quentin Tarrantino vibes, but also that it values style every bit as much as substance, welcoming us into a world where law and order has been reduced to civilian measures.

– Authentic dialogue. As a screenwriter, Levinson channels rich honesty in the way he mimics the speech patterns and conversations of today’s youth, bringing forth a level of realism that proves that the man has done his homework. But it isn’t just in the way that this group of free-spirited women communicate personally with each other, it’s also in the articulation and abbreviation of texting that really hammers this positive home. The amount of times that these characters reach for their phones is a constant reminder of how attached at the hips they are to social media, luring them with the cheese that will eventually trap them whole.

– As for the film’s camera work, there’s a documentary vibe that elicits itself from the experimentation in angles and movements that sets itself apart from the rest of the pack. Levinson cashes in quick edits for manipulated long takes, and this decision pays off immensely with some of my favorite scenes that keeps the grip on tension firmly. One such scene involves a house break-in by a masked group of guys, and we the audience are taken through each room of the house from the outside, pasting together the stream of madness that is spreading like a cancer inside. It is definitely one of my favorite sequences of the year, and magnificent for how it’s cut together to feel like it’s playing out in real time.

– Fresh-faced cast. While the film does have some big name long-time actors like Jennifer Morrison, Joel McHale, and even Pennywise himself, Bill Skarsgard, the decision to hire actresses who are majorly inexperienced is one that pays off greatly for immersing yourself in them as characters. What’s equally more endearing is that each of them steal the show in their own ways, carving out four star-studded breakthrough performances that will undoubtedly bring them to the spectrum of bigger pictures. More than anyone, it’s Young’s nightmarish transformation of Lily that keeps your attention, experiencing a growing reaction to the town that puts her at the forefront of the growing panic.

– Going into this film, I felt that this was going to solely rest as a study of harrowing feminism across a post-Trump elected environment, and while it thrives as that, it doesn’t just rest on those laurels. This is also very much a warning to the kind of stock and security that we put into technology, opening our eyes to how truly vulnerable every one of us are when we think this four inch device shields what’s boiling underneath. We are treated to the fragility of hormone-drive males and how respond to female nudity, and how often women are condemned for doing what they want with their own bodies. All of this echoes these small seeds of truth that we can pull from our own society, allowing the fears that are homegrown within the film to grow with the light of audience eyes firmly focused upon them.

– Reflective storytelling. While I already mentioned the transformation of Lily and what it does to the significance of her character, it also shouldn’t be understated what this does to the movie itself that so faithfully follows her. About halfway through the film, this turns into the scariest Purge horror movie that you’ve ever seen, bringing with it more seeds of honesty than that series could ever attain with satire. The unnerving movements and actions of the townspeople are very effective, and the movie’s thirst for blood is fully realized in the way the angles play with your imagination.

– Without question, my single favorite aspect of the film was the mesmerizing lighting scheme that radiated throughout much of the first act. These unorthodox coloring measures are every bit euphoric as they are absorbing, often embracing the mood of the room and characters respectively with its neon tints. As the film progresses, we are given subtle reminders of this scheme, but never as obvious or as influential as it was during those pivotal first twenty minutes, and I believe this is because there’s something to be said about shaking this almost angelic and dreary perception that the townsfolk have on these girls, in seeing them how THEY want them to be.

NEGATIVES

– Not a major problem, but calling the town Salem was a bit over the top for me. If you know anything about the Salem Witch Trials, you know what I’m referring to, and this not only gives off an unsubtle hint at what’s to inevitably come within our story and main protagonists, but also takes away from the audience relating itself even further to the material. For my money, I wish they would’ve not even mentioned the town name. Mentally, this would be food-for-thought in that it could happen anywhere, and doesn’t limit its message of urgency to one specific place.

– Second act spills. Without a doubt, the second act is the weakness of the film for me, often feeling like its narration is trailing off on character shaping and residential panic to properly bring along its progression. Because of the latter, it greatly feels like the response from the town jumps two steps with little or no warning, exceeding believability a bit with such drastic jumps, and I would prefer Levinson focus slightly more on what’s going on outside of these temporarily protected walls that our group of ladies secure themselves in.

– Principal subplot? One such instance of the sloppy grip that Levinson occasionally stumbles at with his materialistic agenda, is the subplot involving a principal’s secret being revealed. This goes virtually nowhere after the news breaks, and what’s even worse is the lack of involvement from this actor/character as the film goes on, reminds us just how much fat the film could’ve trimmed for itself, in ridding itself of these distracting subplots that take us absolutely nowhere. Another such example is the FBI supposedly tracking Lily’s online movements, but then never actually appearing in the film. Surely something this big would have government workers all over the place, but all we ever get is a goofy sheriff twice removed from a Dukes of Hazzard movie.

7/10

Mandy

Directed by Panos Cosmatos

Starring – Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache

The Plot – Taking place in 1983, Red (Cage) is a lumberjack who lives in a secluded cabin in the woods. His artist girlfriend Mandy (Riseborough) spends her days reading fantasy paperbacks. Then one day, she catches the eye of a crazed cult leader, who conjures a group of motorcycle-riding demons to kidnap her. Red, armed with a chainsaw and other weapons, stops at nothing to get her back, leaving a bloody, brutal pile of bodies in his wake.

Rated R for scenes of terror, violence, and nudity

POSITIVES

– An invitation into the Panosphere. For only his second film, Panos Cosmatos continues to raise the bar of expectations, bringing to ‘Mandy’ a serene sense of hallucination that is the closest I’ve ever been to feeling on drugs. Visually, this film is a rock and roll fever dream of epic visuals and an over-the-top color pallet that constantly amazes. Shot with a Panavision AL series with an anamorphic lens, Benjamin Loeb’s mesmerizing cinematography is unlike anything that I have seen in such a long time, bringing beauty and euphoria to such nightmarish imagery.

– Marc Engels manipulative presence behind such sharp sound mixing. One sign of great mixing is when a film is able to fool me into hearing something that may very well not in fact be there, and it’s a constant in this film for my eyes to continue wandering, as I heard a barrage of animals and chanting that never appeared once in the film’s vantage point. Even better, it never intrudes on Johan’s sacred territory of scoring this midnight terror.

– Speaking of Johan, the gifted composer’s work in ‘Mandy’ is unfortunately his swan song cap on a legendary career, and he brings his A-game to outlining this other-worldly dimension that feels present in this film. Besides his love for the dark and ominous, it’s Johan’s range in electronic instruments and synth strings that gives this film’s horror and humanity the effective layers needed. Johansson has always been one of my absolute favorite composers, and from this critic and fan I say thank you for the memories. I’m glad you went out with arguably your most evasive and daring work to date.

– On a level of horror, many might be offended by ‘Mandy’ because it doesn’t have jump scares or conventional tropes, but this film does for atmosphere what others can only dream of. Much of this film deals with the devotion to the occult, so in depicting the helplessness and brainwashing, it truly is terrifying how one man’s guidance can be so dangerous based on how he chooses to unleash it. I found the thought process of this group to not be necessarily scary, but more unnerving and disturbing, for how they continue to believe they are doing the right thing.

– Cage unleashed. While Nicolas has never been one of my personal favorite actors, I can say that he is the perfect man for this project, if even just for the pure insanity that he brings to every character he takes on. As Red, Cage’s indulgence for overacting is the status quo, bringing a combination of grief and vengeance to his demeanor that feels animalistic when he reaches his road of revenge. His words are minimal, instead allowing his actions to do the talking. Cage’s crimson mask is worn like a trophy for his savage retaliation, and for the first time in a while, he feels inspired to give his all to a role that deserves him.

– Pays homage to the classic horror films before it that obviously influence this student-of-the-game director. I’m sure there are more than the ones I found, but my first viewing brought obvious dedications to films like ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’, ‘Phantasm 2’, and of course ‘Evil Dead 2’. The one common factor here is that they are all sequels, but interesting enough, this is Cosmatos’s second directing effort. It takes two indeed.

– Unintentional humor that speaks volumes for the designated time period. Considering this film takes place in 1983, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the infamous disco versus rock and roll war are prominent in an environment even miles from society, and Panos heart lies with the latter. Our two protagonists don metal t-shirts that bear the obvious pentagram influence, but it’s in the cult’s musical choice of The Carpenters that nearly brought tears to my eyes. In so many words, Panos is relaying the idea that only people under the influence of some higher power can listen to such melodramatic music, and these few instances served as a welcome breath between terror shrieks that were the majority.

– Artistic expression. I know, big shocker right? But far beyond even the variety of colorful vibes associated with the film’s vibrant color scheme, the deposits of animated sequences were also a welcome breath of fresh air. These trippy free-flowing layers represented the dream sequences of those who the focus was on for that particular scene, and echoed accordingly the drug-enhanced vibe that is everywhere throughout the film. Even beyond this, I loved the neon title screens that introduced each character to us the audience. In accordance to this, the film’s title screen doesn’t pop up until halfway through the movie, signaling the start of the movie that was advertised as promised.

– Simplicity in story. What I appreciate about this film most of all is it didn’t require itself to feel cryptic or mythological with where it was headed, despite the first act that sets the stage for some abrasive folklore. At the end of the movie, the decision to hone this as a pretty conventional revenge flick is something that amazes the most, because it’s garners such a gut-punch of an impact from the imagery you partook in. This gives the film such an immense return that doesn’t require poignancy in material to spread the word of its mayhem. The film’s after midnight portal to another world more than takes care of that.

NEGATIVES

– Far too padded out in dialogue and sequencing. This film has no right to be over the 100 minute mark, and it’s unfortunately in its uneven first act where it wears too much of its weight. Dialogue is redundant, editing is testy in its delayed response, and the progression of plot feels most stunted during this period. This aspect will no doubt be the most difficult sell to audiences in terms of pacing, and I can understand it, because this film was one more edit away from being perfect.

9/10

The Nun

Directed by Corin Hardy

Starring – Demian Bichir, Taissa Farmiga, Jonas Bloquet

The Plot – When a young nun (Bonnie Aarons) at a cloistered abbey in Romania takes her own life, a priest (Bichir) with a haunted past and a novitiate (Farmiga) on the threshold of her final vows are sent by the Vatican to investigate. Together they uncover the order’s unholy secret. Risking not only their lives but their faith and their very souls, they confront a malevolent force in the form of the same demonic nun that first terrorized audiences in ‘The Conjuring 2,’ as the abbey becomes a horrific battleground between the living and the damned.

Rated R for terror, violence, and disturbing/bloody images

POSITIVES

– Eerily effective musical score from Abel Korzeniowski. If it isn’t enough that the musical composer’s name is Abel in a film surrounding religion, the wise decisions that he takes in crafting that authentic convent feel moves the atmosphere and tone miles in terms of the inevitable doom they channel. Abel combines these richly dark and ominous tones with the inclusion of an all-male choir, to make it sound like echoing hymns throughout the hallowed halls, and its power is greater than most of the supposed scares in the film.

– Detailed production in set pieces that spare zero expense. What transcends the film from being just another watered down sequel is the attention to eye-popping props and on-location (Romania) shooting that sprinkle its vital investment into this story. Beyond this being just a scary place, it’s one that works for the dimming of natural light whose shadow work messes with your mind on several occasions, as well as the time that went into perfecting uses for even the minimalist of scene time. The graveyard full of crosses feels like it stretches miles, speaking volumes not only to the rich tradition of this convent, but also Valek’s menacing powers that have ended many lives.

– Art imitating life? It’s interesting that both Farmiga sisters, Vera and Taissa, have both appeared in this series of films, albeit in respectively different films. For the younger Farmiga, she is every bit as rich in haunting facial reactions as her big sis, but it’s more in her character’s inexperience with true evil that crafts her performance as something entirely different. As Sister Irene, Taissa rarely needs to scream to keep a grip on the attention of the film, instead being the glaring line of conscience between our world and Catholicism that is tested every foot along the way.

– Uneasiness with simply imagery. When this film isn’t trying to be full of unnecessary jump scares, the unsettling depictions of faceless nuns slowly walking in A rhythmic trance gave me constant reminder of what this film could’ve been if the studio just trusted the atmosphere in tension that has been built across five movies. It properly sets the mood for the film you were promised, but unfortunately lives up with much else, because it would rather aim for the same tropes that is all the craze in modern horror.

– Justification among its counterparts. The ending of the film, while a mess creatively for this lone chapter, does fit in perfectly with ‘The Conjuring’ universe, and does instill strong replay value for the films before it. One scene in particular takes us back to a scene in the first Conjuring movie, neatly tying the two sides together without it feeling like a great suspension of disbelief.

NEGATIVES

– Why is this rated R? Push aside the Academy’s grading that I typed above, and you have a lack of emphasis overall with the coveted R-rating that other horror films so desperately require. Because of the often times blurry surroundings, there’s little distinguishable blood, and there’s nothing too disturbing in violence that would otherwise make me think this isn’t a PG-13 film. This feels like a mistake more on the Academy’s part, but the film itself does very little of risk to warrant this designation.

– Terribly bad A.D.R. It’s almost become typical of me to spot instances here and there in a film where lines of dialogue don’t match that of the proper lip movements that come from their actors, but in ‘The Nun’ that game gets taken to a whole other level. I’m not sure if the sound mixer was asleep at the wheel, but there were two scenes where a character is talking aloud without actually speaking in vision. The film thinks if it hides this character in the background it won’t be noticeable, but that couldn’t be further from the truth, and these instances aren’t strong enough to be considered sloppy, they are downright amateur.

– Continued dependency on jump scares. This is beginning to get to the point where it’s every bit as formulaic as it is anti-climatic. While there are bigger offenders of the cliche, ‘The Nun’ goes to the well eight times too many with ineffective jump scares that can easily be telegraphed from a mile away. It’s typically when a scene’s sound goes from seven to zero in a split second, but there’s something additional even more conflicting here. The camera work and shot composition repeat on more than one occasion for these jump scare scenes, and that redundancy speaks volumes of the laziness that comes across in too many jump scares that don’t warrant the sound that comes from them.

– Inconsistencies of the rules. There are too many examples to cite here, so I will just say my favorite. Valek herself fears crosses in her vision, often times disappearing when she comes into contact with one. In this regards, she can be easily compared to the rules of a vampire. So why then are there not only several instances of crosses in plain view that do nothing, as well as how she can touch and even harm these blessed holy characters without something of harm coming to her. You had one rule for your antagonist, and you even messed that up.

– Without question, the most offensive aspect of the film to me is how it unabashedly rips off scenes and storyboards from other movies without shame. Throughout the film, there are unavoidable instances with films like ‘The Exorcist’ or ‘Silent Hill’, but the biggest offender to me is that of ‘Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight’. The producers of this film must have a lot of faith that no one saw that movie, and they’re probably right, but to completely lift the entire ending from that movie is shameful to say the least, and proves that ‘The Nun’ never comfortably follows its own path.

5/10

Blood Fest

Directed by Owen Egerton

Starring – Robbie Kay, Seychelle Gabriel, Zachary Levi

The Plot – Fans flock to a festival celebrating the most iconic horror movies, only to discover that the charismatic showman behind the event has a diabolical agenda. As festival attendees start dying off, three teenagers, more schooled in horror-film cliches than practical knowledge about neutralizing psycho killers , must band together and battle through various madmen and monstrosities to survive.

Currently not rated

POSITIVES

– Creative kills. Sadly, the effects work is mostly computer generated, but that doesn’t spoil the creativity involved with a first act setting of the stage that is certainly the five most satisfying minutes that this film has to offer. Chainsaws, road tools, and pools of pig’s blood splash and gash across the screen, giving you a fiesta of carnage that the rest of the film has trouble ever living up to.

– Subtle homages to horror icons. While most of the rules and material of ‘Blood Fest’ felt more insulting than not for my taste, the Easter Eggs pointing to some of the elusive legends of the genre felt satisfying for their familiarity. It’s not so much ripping off popular properties as it is depicting their magnitude on the horror pop culture stratosphere. I won’t spoil much, but Hoddertown as a setting within the park gave me plenty of motivation as to where I want to live next.

– I love the idea of this plot. This feeling of life imitating art is one that thrives with my general interest, even if the movie managed to round up zero legitimate scares along the way. On the surface, the event Blood Fest is this great excuse for gore and body counts of the highest ratio to come together, bringing the torture on a grander scale than were used to in a conventional horror film, with the exception of maybe zombie films. P.S – There are zombies in this movie.

– While none of the acting is worthy of over-the-top praise, the work from this ensemble of mostly inexperienced cast members do a solid enough job as a likeable entity. Particularly the work of Gabriel as the final girl of sorts for this film, served as my single favorite performance for the movie, as someone not afraid of getting dirty when a scene requires it. She tends to give her whole body to a scene involving violence, and her petite stature is one that comes in handy for the many twists and turns that the story, as well as her body, takes.

– Much of the comedy, while juvenile and redundant at times, hits its target for a majority of the time, bringing a few hearty laughs that definitely made the sit a lot easier. My favorite scene of the movie takes place in the opening five minutes, when the trio of leads are talking at the video store. The banter between them is timely in their sarcastic deliveries, and overall it’s this scene that sets the precedent for the personalities, as well as the brand of humor for the entirety of the movie going forward.

NEGATIVES

– While this is a far greater improvement on production designs from Rooster Teeth’s other feature films, the set pieces in particular feel lifeless and artificial. When the film isn’t limiting the most of its horrific looking green-screen effects that obscure and blur anything surrounding human properties, the physical properties feel like they were cut out of a gimmick haunted house, lacking any kind of depth or creativity for their inclusion.

– Bare minimum character exposition. These are people who are limited to one word descriptions like “Blonde” or “Virgin”, and the film’s lack of focus to their proper development leaves them equally with nothing to live up to with these minimal tags. Even for a B-grade horror movie, ‘Blood Fest’ caters more to the familiar tropes of the genre, instead of building on the audience’s investment in a particular character, and the result are weightless deaths that add nothing of urgency or effectiveness to the frights of the film.

– Plagued by predictability. ‘Blood Fest’ feels worn down by the lifespan of its gimmick as a movie that is ahead of the rules it promotes, beating into the ground constant reminders that riddle it full of telegraphed moves before they even happen. A couple has sex, so of course they’re dead, a blonde is naked in the shower, so of course she’s next, and this constant ring of reminder annoyed me because of how saddled it becomes with being another follower of the pack.

– ‘Blood Fest’ is everything wrong with the pop culture appeal that it satirizes so often. The film’s antagonist speaks of the horror genre losing its effect because studios have taken what’s forbidden and made it routine, and this movie does the exact same. It’s insulting to condense horror into a few simple rules, but even more than that it’s damning to the integrity of the film when the tone-deaf range, as well as lack of anything original or compelling for the genre rears its head. This gives Rooster Teeth a double F for eFFort.

– The twist, while anything but predictable, is as far-fetched an idea as anything that this film scares up for us. What’s even more ridiculous is that the film didn’t require it, as the movie’s true antagonist and surprisingly creative plot made for more than enough explanation on the idea of this festival. I guess it’s appropriate that a character involved in the ending spouts the line “I did warn you that Blood Fest was going to suck”. Well played movie, and this twist only further emphasizes how right on the money you truly were.

5/10