With a Whimper

 

Having recently read/reviewed Harlan Ellison’s Blood’s a Rover and re-read (for the umpteenth time) Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, I must admit to being on a bit of a post-apocalyptic kick. So when I caught wind of the new Netflix original film How It Ends–whose trailer presented some stunning visuals, along with the always-exceptional Forest Whitaker in a starring role–I was naturally eager to check it out.

The movie centers on ex-marine Tom Sutherland (Whitaker), who is extremely disapproving of his daughter Sam’s boyfriend, attorney Will Younger. When a mysterious cataclysm strikes the West Coast of the U.S. and sends power outages and freak storms rippling across the country, Tom and Will set out from Chicago to find and rescue the incommunicado Sam in Seattle. How It Ends thus forms a variation on a road movie, tracing the evolving relationship between the unlikely pair of heroes attempting to trek cross-country. On this front, the film succeeds, thanks to the strong performances of Whitaker and Theo James as Will. But their arduous journey is ultimately too protracted: the plot bogs down with too many scenes of run-ins with Americans gone bad in the wake of national (perhaps not natural) catastrophe. Credibility is often strained along the way, such as when Tom manages to talk his way past a military roadblock merely by mentioning (and in no way verifying) that he served in the Marines.

Eventually we arrive at a blasted and ash-shrouded Seattle that makes for an absolutely haunting vista. After all that has preceded it, though, the climax feels rushed, introducing a new, under-developed, and soon-vanquished antagonist. Attempts to explain what triggered the apocalypse also prove unsatisfactory; the film has been preoccupied throughout with thrusting its characters into terrible predicaments, but appears at a loss to provide any sort of satisfying resolution. The final scene, in which a sudden, surging cloud of smoke (devoid of any real narrative logic beyond the writers’ need to generate another obstacle) chases the heroes as they speed away from the city, was groan-inducingly hokey. So while the film gets off to a promising start, the answer to How It Ends is, alas, not well.

 

Accredited Openings

Yesterday, Meagan Navarro posted a fun editorial over at Bloody Disgusting: “10 Horror Movie Opening Scenes So Good We Were Instantly Hooked.” Her annotated list of memorable attention-grabbers and tone-setters got me to thinking: what first scene of a horror movie left a lasting impression on me? Films like Hellraiser and It Follows quickly came to mind, but if I had to pick just one, I would go with 2007’s Trick ‘r Treat.

To start with, director Michael Dougherty’s visuals are amazing, creating the ultimate All Hallow’s Eve atmosphere (watching the scene, and seeing the magnificent efforts of yard haunting on display, makes me wish that I lived in such a spirited neighborhood). The opening builds incredible suspense, and strikes a perfect balance between subtle disturbances, jump scares, and awful reveals. Mystery also arises, as the viewer isn’t sure just what has slaughtered and strung up Emma, and why. The answers aren’t provided until much later, and seemingly irrelevant elements from this initial scene take on added significance in retrospect as the film’s looping narrative structure is established. A holiday-themed anthology film, Trick ‘r Treat plays like a glorious mash-up of Halloween and Creepshow, and its skillful mixture of horror and black humor is evident before the film even gets to its (wonderfully animated) opening credits.

 

Inspiring Frankenstein

The story is almost as famous as the book itself: on a stormy mid-June night 202 years ago, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Dr. John Polidori are gathered within the Villa Diodati, and decide to pass the time by engaging in a ghost story competition. This proposed writing contest, and a subsequent nightmare suffered by Mary, spark the creation of Frankenstein, the now-classic novel concerning a Promethean transgressor and a pitiable creature driven to vengeance.

Just as Frankenstein itself has grown into a pop-culture phenomenon, with countless iterations in various mediums, the novel’s origin story has inspired a host of literary and cinematic efforts. Writers such as Brian W. Aldiss (Frankenstein Unbound), Tim Powers (The Stress of Her Regard), and Chuck Palahniuk (Haunted) have hearkened back to the Villa Diodati, as have films such as The Bride of FrankensteinGothic, and Haunted Summer. The most recent entry to this list is the 2018 biopic Mary Shelley, featuring an outstanding Elle Fanning in the title role.

Mary Shelley proceeds nearly two-thirds of the way through its run time before arriving at the seminal scene, which is presented in restrained fashion (yes, there are plenty of flickering candles, and thundercracks without, and Fuseli’s The Nightmare looms over one room, but matters don’t get anywhere near as Gothic as in Ken Russell’s Gothic). This is not to say that the events at the Villa are underplayed; what the film does so well is to take the time to establish the import of everything leading up this particular scene. Not simply the product of a single rainy night, Frankenstein is shown here as developing from the author’s lifelong experiences of loss, death, and betrayal. Marked by feelings of “desperate loneliness” and abandonment (mostly stemming from her relationship with Percy Shelley), Mary clearly identifies with the creature that takes shape on the pages of her manuscript.

Overall, this is a finely realized period drama, filled with impressive performances. The film allows its feminist themes to unfold in a natural, non-preachy fashion that makes the narrative all the more moving. Wonderfully entertaining, Mary Shelley is well worth checking out, on this historic night or any other.

Sins of the Mother: A Review of Hereditary

Hereditary, the most-anticipated horror release of 2018, has enjoyed months-long (film-festival-generated) buzz, and recently debuted to widespread critical acclaim. After finally watching the movie myself, I have to add: I just don’t see what all the fuss is about.

The film centers on a nuclear family aggrieved by a secretive, eccentric (i.e. dark-arts-and-crafts-loving) grandmother who becomes an even greater burden after she’s dead and buried. A promising enough premise, but Hereditary quickly proceeds to underwhelm. For starters, the main performers prove guilty of rampant overacting. The Oscar-touted Toni Collette as mournful mom Annie Graham vacillates between shrieking hysterically and shrilly hectoring her loved ones; Alex Wolff as the increasingly-petrified stoner teen Peter demonstrates acting chops no less hammy. Meanwhile Gabriel Byrne as patriarch Steve is presented as a laid-back foil to his overwrought family, but Byrne practically sleepwalks through the role.

Hereditary also threatens to make a misnomer of run time, as the film (its first hour in particular) unfolds with torturous slowness. A major twist about two-thirds of the way in is anything but unexpected: one character couldn’t have more clearly announced herself as a Duplicitous Assister Straight Out of Rosemary’s Baby if she were wearing a sandwich board. Likewise, the occult-conspiracy climax plays out all too familiarly for genre fans.

I can appreciate that first-time director Ari Aster aims to build a lush Gothic atmosphere rather than rely on cheap jump-scares. For sure, there are some creepy and disturbing moments here (too many, though, that were spoiled by the film’s trailer), but Hereditary never really terrifies. It failed to scare me at least, mostly because I just didn’t care enough about the characters and their predicament.

Much like The Witch (an infinitely superior effort), this film seems destined to create a broad divide in its audience. And much like Robert Eggers’s Puritanical chiller, Aster’s cinematic premiere will no doubt benefit from repeat viewing (not just to appreciate its more nuanced aspects, but simply to get a closer, at-home view of the small print that appears onscreen on several occasions and is a struggle to read for hardly-eagle-eyed theatergoers such as myself). My lofty expectations having been grounded, though, I can’t say that I am looking forward to a reunion with the Graham family anytime soon. More histrionic than horrific, Hereditary passes along too many negative traits.

Back to Haddonfield

It’s only early June, but Halloween is already in the air–or on the Web, at least. The trailer for Michael Myers’s next nightmarish assault debuted today, leading legions of fans to start dreaming of October. Forty years in the making, the latest installment hearkens back directly to the 1978 original, nullifying the storylines of the innumerable sequels and Rob Zombie remakes. The revision of the Myers mythology alone makes this forthcoming endeavor intriguing; the look of the film–the glimpses of holiday scenery and festivity–also creates cause for excitement.

Here in the Macabre Republic, every autumn is always eagerly anticipated, but this trailer points to one big reason why Halloween 2018 can’t come soon enough.

Mob Scene: The Night of the Hunter

The classic 1955 crime/horror film The Night of the Hunter not only evinces a German expressionist style throughout but in its climactic mob scene also evokes a German (or at least generically European) village setting from a Universal monster movie. After the widow-seducing, serial-killing con man and thief “Reverend” Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is finally arrested, Icey and Walt Spoon (a couple that previously seemed plucked from a Norman Rockwell painting) bring disorder to the court during Powell’s trial via cries of “Lynch him!” and “Bluebeard!” Looking suddenly scraggly-haired and haggish, Evelyn Varden’s Icey channels Una O’Connor as the vociferous angry-villager Minnie in the Frankenstein movies. She comes across, though, as more of a pathetic than comedic figure; Icey apparently has had a few on the rocks when she drunkenly disturbs the dinner of the “poor orphans” following the trial. The children (who’ve spent a good portion of the film being chased by Powell) are forced to flee the restaurant as a torch-, tool-, and furniture-wielding lynch mob takes to the streets.

The turn by first-time filmmaker Charles Laughton (who co-starred with Boris Karloff in Frankenstein-director James Whale’s The Old Dark House, and who was married to The Bride of Frankenstein herself, Elsa Lanchester) back to Universal horror is unsurprising here yet also curious. The iconography proves somewhat disorienting, as The Night of the Hunter‘s West Virginia locale promptly transforms into a back lot rendition of a European village. This mob scene is also disconcerting in its recasting of the film’s hitherto-wholesome supporting characters: as the Spoons stir up a bloodthirsty rabble, they are reduced to a level of dubious morality that marks them as ultimately not all that different from Mitchum’s criminal minister. With all these vigilante-justice-seekers afoot, the film’s title could easily–and troublingly–be pluralized.

In Name Only

In Cold Blood meets The Last House on the Left in American Gothic, as a pair of convicts break into a farmhouse, only to encounter a family mad for revenge. Unfortunately, such rough comparison is about the best thing that can be said for this 2017 horror film.

The acting is glaringly awful, with the film’s troupe of alleged thespians performing like community theater cast-offs. Their unconvincing dialogue is matched only by their characters’ unfathomable actions–decisions consistently serving no logic other than directorial steering of a contrived plot. The climactic twist, involving a young woman held captive in the farmhouse cellar, is both telegraphed and clumsily executed. This movie is so bad, it makes its homonymous 1987 predecessor seem like Silence of the Lambs.

The biggest problem I have, though, is with the film’s title, and the hackneyed sense of American Gothic (“crazy inhabitants of a rural Pennsylvanian farmhouse”) conveyed by the film itself. Then again, the filmmakers might deserve kudos for clever marketing: had they labeled their effort more honestly–Low-Budget Lameness Appropriating the Title of Grant Wood’s Famous Painting–I likely would have passed.

Amazon Prime members can stream American Gothic for free, but viewers are apt to regret the cost of seventy-five minutes out of their day. Be forewarned: poking one’s eyes out with a pitchfork makes for better entertainment than watching this cinematic monstrosity.

Judgment Against

While Hellraiser: Judgement is nowhere near as execrable as some of its predecessors in this long-running (rights-securing) series, it is hardly a sinful delight.

The cinematic transgressions here are numerable. Let’s start with stilted dialogue, laced with exposition. Follow that with a cliched premise: detectives hunting an exotic serial killer–the Preceptor, who proceeds from a warped interpretation of the Ten Commandments. In this regard, Judgment steals from a much better film (Se7en), just as its scenes of squalor horror/torture porn clearly rifle the Saw franchise. What’s worse, Judgment‘s derivative storyline feels like one we’ve already suffered through in a previous installment: 2000’s Hellraiser: Inferno.

Writer/director Gary J. Tunnicliffe’s police-procedural plot meanders, making 81 minutes of runtime seem like a season in hell. Meanwhile, Pinhead is barely seen, save for periodic glimpses of him seated on a stony throne, straining for gravitas. As in other lackluster entries in the series, the iconic Cenobite appears out of place in the very film featuring his pierced visage on the DVD cover. Here he is supplanted by the sadistic machinations of the Stygian Inquistion (kudos to Judgment, though, for at least attempting to bring a fresh element to the Hellraiser mythos).

The film only really becomes enjoyable when Pinhead finally takes center stage for his obligatory last-act demon ex machina. Paul T. Taylor is unlikely to make fans forget Doug Bradley, but proves a more-than-passable Hell Priest in the climax. Pinhead displays both his trademark wit and spectacularly sadistic touch as he hauls human sinners off to Hell. This is all just the undercard, however; the main event is a philosophical–and savagely physical–face-off with an angelic adversary. The scene is one of the best to appear in a Hellraiser film in quite some time, and gets even better with an ironic twist that satisfyingly concludes Pinhead’s series-long character arc.

For sure, there are things to like about Judgment. An understated Tunnicliffe supplies some dark comedy in his turn as the Auditor character. Also, the love triangle/infidelity theme that emerges late in the film makes for a nice bookend with the inciting moments of the original Hellraiser. Unfortunately, the formulaic outweighs the fantastic, and a strong finale cannot make up for a sluggish build-up. At times tantalizing yet disappointing overall, Judgment will leave viewers yearning for that special someday when Clive Barker regains the rights to Hellraiser and returns the series to its full infernal glory.

Don’t Fear the Creeper

The original Jeepers Creepers was an unnerving, atmospheric horror film that introduced a terrific antagonist. The fun (if not quite as frightful) Jeepers Creepers 2 offered loads of action and suspense as the Creeper–that ghoulish gargoyle decked out like The Undertaker–menaced a high school basketball team’s bus. For fans of these first two installments, though, the long-delayed Jeepers Creepers 3 will prove bitterly disappointing.

Jonathan Breck returns here to embody the carnivorous Creeper (whose looking a lot beefier from all that binge eating), but the character gets utterly upstaged by its own paraphernalia. More attention is given to its weapons (which spring to hand via campy telepathy) and its gadget-pimped, booby-trapped truck (imagine the Batmobile redesigned by Jigsaw). Even one of the creature’s severed hands from twenty-three years earlier gets a disproportionate share of screen time–in a hokey bit of mythology, holding said appendage allegedly furnishes insight into the origins and vulnerabilities of the Creeper. I write “allegedly,” because the film refuses to reveal any of this information, despite featuring two drawn-out scenes in which different characters endure the visionary experience. Such failure to deliver marks Jeepers Creepers 3 as a whole; there isn’t even a climactic confrontation, just the histrionic dismay of the monster after it discovers that some of its human nemeses have learned its secrets.

This is a film that has it all–if all we are talking about is hammy acting, B-grade CGI, and a nonsensical, go-nowhere plot. The less said about it, the better; I feel I have already wasted enough time just sitting down to watch it.

After suffering through this wretched resurfacing, I can only hope that the Jeepers Creepers franchise remains dormant for a lot longer than twenty-three years.

Murder as a Fun Art

Scooby-Doo undoubtedly forms the first major influence on my sensibilities, molding my lifelong interest in the Gothic and the macabre. (I can remember penning at age 10 or so a notebook “novel” titled Murder About the Manor, whose sprawling cast included tennis greats Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl–hey, I figured, if the Harlem Globetrotters could guest star on Scooby-Doo…!) The next phase of my development, though, can be traced to a trio of atmospheric mysteries. These movies hooked the adolescent me with their humor, but made a lasting impression with their hints of the horrific:

 

Murder By Death (1976)

Watching this air on broadcast TV as a kid, I might not have been quite old enough yet to catch the full scale of the super-sleuth parody, but I reveled in the silliness of the Neil Simon script (the sights gags involving Alec Guinness’s blind butler; the politically-incorrect humor centered on Peter Sellers’ Charlie Chan stand-in). I was also absolutely mesmerized by the setting: a fog-shrouded, rain-drenched country house complete with falling gargoyles, a shrieking doorbell, cobwebbed and booby-trapped bedrooms. And long before I ever read a word of his American Gothic prose, I was enthralled by Truman Capote–who here makes a rare acting appearance as the film’s master manipulator.

 

The Private Eyes (1980)

Tim Conway and Don Knotts play a pair of detectives so bumbling, they make Inspector Clouseau look like Hercule Poirot. To this day, I chuckle over the killer’s hilarious deviations from rhyme scheme in his notes left with the victims (e.g. “He deserved what he got, I don’t regret it a bit. / By the way, you are standing in bull caca.”). Again, though, the film’s darker elements are what delighted me most: the spooky mansion featuring secret entrances, behind-the-walls passageways, and spyhole-eyed portraits; a Shadowy menace (whose black hood and robe make Ghostface’s costume look like a hand-me-down) purported to be the estate’s murdered lord returned as vengeful revenant; the terrific jump-scare inside the family crypt. I watched this one countless times on HBO as a youngster; seeing it again recently, I am reminded of all the wonderful reasons why.

 

Deathtrap (1982)

An older cousin brought me to the movie theater to see this adaptation of the Ira Levin stage play, and I soon realized that I was experiencing more adult fare than what Murder By Death or The Private Eyes previously offered. Slapstick humor is replaced by a more sophisticated wit (although there’s still some broad comedy to be found in the meemies screamed by Dyan Cannon’s high-strung character). The violence–even when the weapons prove to be theater props borrowed from the wall of a playwright’s office–is more graphic, and the perpetrators’ motivations more sinister. Watching this finely-crafted film taught me that a plot twist can be more elaborate than a bunch of meddling kids removing a monster mask from some greedy schemer.