Warner Bros. Pictures.
Isn’t this the coolest Halloween card ever? The little skeleton guy dances.
Hope you guys have something scary planned for the month ahead. I’ve got a short list of movies I’d love to make time for: “Dracula” (1939), “House of the Devil” (2009), “Annabelle Creation” (2017) and “Mr. Mercedes” Season 3 (2019). Yeah, I know that last one isn’t a feature film, but it’s a program of truly cinematic quality. “Mr. Mercedes” has been the best kept secret in Stephen King fandom — no, its antagonist isn’t as flashy as Pennywise the Clown or The Gunslinger’s various nemeses. But it’s a gorgeous adaptation of a King novel that might even be better than its source material. Check it out, seriously — skip “American Horror Story” if you have to.
There are two movies I need to get to that have been recommended to me with a lot of enthusiasm. The first is “In the Mouth of Madness,” 1994’s H.P. Lovecraft adaptation starring Sam Neill. (I actually started it a few years ago after a friend in New York urged me to, but it just didn’t hold my interest.) The second is 2001’s “Shadow of the Vampire,” which features Willem Dafoe doing Nosferatu. (I only discovered just now writing this that John Malkovich portrays F.W. Murnau.)
I’ll tell you something else, too — I’ve checked out one or two short films on the free ALTER channel and they’ve been terrific. Maybe I’m due for another visit there.
I’m just piping in here to say that I still enjoy “Black Mirror” — even after Season 5 left a lot of fans nonplussed. No, this tonally different, three-episode arc wasn’t the show’s best season, but it was still a decent watch. I had some minor criticisms, but I’d rate it an 8 out of 10.
Perhaps predictably, my favorite of the three was “Smithereens.” Not only did it most closely follow the tone and dialogue of past seasons, it boasted a fine lead performance by Andrew Scott, better known to many of us as Moriarty from Britain’s “Sherlock” (2010-2017).
For those of you who are wondering why the “season” was so short, I read today that “Bandersnatch” was supposed to be a part of it, and was produced at about the same time. The showrunners then decided to make that episode a standalone feature, given its unique nature.
I just cannot be partial to slasher films. It’s never been my preferred horror sub-genre to start with, and, at this point in my life, these movies have become so predictable and devoid of story that I often find them boring. There are exceptions — some of the the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street” films (1984- 2003) and “Child’s Play” (1988) were grotesquely creative and had terrific supernatural setups that were well executed. But even the attraction of John Carpenter’s original “Halloween” films (1978, 1981) is still mostly lost on me.
With all of that said, I’ll still say that my horror fan friends were right when they told me that 2018’s “Halloween” was a superior sequel. It looks a lot better than the segments I’ve seen of of the campier followups in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
It’s far better filmed and directed, it’s occasionally scary and it benefits from a very good cast. (Jamie Lee Curtis is of course quite good as the film’s heroine and perennial “final girl.” I’m also always happy to see Will Patton on screen, and I like Judy Greer a lot.) The script occasionally shines unexpectedly, too — the screenwriters have a truly impressive talent for making minor characters vivid with funny throwaway dialogue. (One of the three screenwriters is actor-writer-comedian Danny McBride, who I liked quite a bit in 2017’s “Alien: Covenant.”)
I’d be lying, however, if I told you that I wasn’t occasionally bored by this latest “Halloween” — simply because its basic, boilerplate plot and conclusion seem endlessly redundant with those of other slasher films. There are few surprises toward the end — one “gotcha” moment was especially nice — but the overall story is just too tired. I’d rate this film a 7 out of 10 for its merits, but I can’t actually get excited enough about it to recommend it.
Invada Records. The artwork employed for this cover was created by Billy the Butcher.
I can’t say that the Australian “Killing Ground” (2016) is a bad horror-thriller. It’s well made in some ways — most notably in its generally excellent cast. (The standouts here are Harriet Dyer and Ian Meadows; the latter provides a disturbingly naturalistic performance as one of the story’s evildoers. He’s a talented actor and unnervingly skilled in his role here.) And the cinematography is good, even if it suffers in inevitable comparison to the seminal Australian outback horror-thrillers, the extraordinary “Wolf Creek” films and TV series (2005-2017).
But I can’t actually recommend “Killing Ground” either, because I didn’t enjoy it much. I’d rate it only a 4 out of 10 for its strengths. What held me back from enjoying the movie more is its brutal portrayal of violence.
I realize that sounds ridiculous, given my viewing habits and the films I’ve favorably reviewed right here at this blog. (Any entry in the “Wolf Creek” series, for example, contains far more violence and sadism than “Killing Ground.”) And I’ll probably do a poor job of explaining it now.
But the violence here feels too … realistic. (Other reviewers have noted this as well, and employed the descriptor “hyper-realistic.”) Furthermore, its depiction is not in service to the story, but rather seems the sole and primary focus of the film itself. One of my complaints about “Killing Ground” is that there is not much of a story at all. We simply witness random violence perpetrated against ordinary innocents who we would probably like if we met them. (I am trying to avoid spoilers here; hence my vague language.)
Writer-director Damien Power also delivers this brutality to the audience in a … prosaic manner, I guess, with little fanfare. His movie came across to me like a faux snuff film, instead of a cinematic story of good and evil, or a character-driven survival parable. (I submit that “Wolf Creek” hit it out of the park on both of those counts.)
If you think I’m being unclear here, I apologize for that. The point I’m trying to make is maddeningly difficult to articulate. And I’ll concede up front that my reaction to this film is especially subjective.
If it gives you any context, I’ll point out that critical reaction to “Killing Ground” was quite divided, with some reviewers sharing my discomfort, while others lauded the film. Your mileage may vary.
“Us” (2019) passes the litmus test for a good horror movie — it is genuinely scary, thanks largely to Jordan Peele’s terrific directing and its cast’s immense talents. Lupita Nyong’o shines the most here; she gives a tour-de-force performance in the dual role of both a terrified woman and her savage, homicidal doppleganger. (If you’ve seen the trailer for “Us,” you know it portrays a nuclear family of four being assailed by their mysterious, murderous lookalikes.) Shahadi Wright Joseph is also especially good, in the dual role as both the family’s traumatized daughter and her cherubic-yet-stabbity twin. This is a creative horror film with excellent shooting and imagery, and I’d rate it an 8 out of 10.
I don’t know that everyone will enjoy the film as I did, as I don’t think it is perfect. Its overlong third act is easily its weakest, when the traditional cat-and-mouse horror-movie antics eventually take a back seat to the film’s key reveals. We do get an explanation for the clone-tastic shenanigans in “Us,” even if it isn’t altogether satisfying. There is actually an extensive fantasy/sci-fi backstory that Peele has prepared, and which I will not spoil here.
But I do think that many viewers would enjoy the story more without it, as I think I would have. The movie’s key reveals are implausible and slightly befuddling at first, and then grow preposterous in the viewer’s mind the more that he or she thinks about them. They’re presented a bit ploddingly, too, in a film that feels maybe 20 minutes too long. As good as it was, “Us” would have been a more entertaining film if it had left the genesis of its strange events a mystery. If it had been presented as a simple, violent parable about the id, for example, it would appeal to a far wider audience and might approach the status of a horror classic, as Peele’s outstanding “Get Out” did in 2017.
But that isn’t what Peele wanted. The friend with whom I watched “Us” last night sent me a great March 22 article by Aja Romano at Vox that admirably breaks down the movie’s ending. Peele indeed had a more detailed and thoughtful message than a general statement about mankind’s duality. Long story short — the movie’s mythology might not make a lot of practical sense, but it makes a lot of sense thematically. There is some intelligent social messaging here, even if it isn’t perfectly delivered. It helps if you think of “Us” as a surreal horror story instead of a realistic one. I found that I liked the ending much more after reading this, and you might too.
One more note — this is the first time I’ve seen Elizabeth Moss on screen. (She’s in a surprisingly hilarious supporting role here; I think most readers of this blog will recognize her as the protagonist of Hulu’s adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”) She’s got great comic timing, and she’s absolutely magnetic. People keep telling me that I should watch “The Handmaid’s Tale;” maybe I really am overdue for that.