Ghosts seldom scare me, because I’m never 100 percent clear on what sort of threat they present to the protagonists of a horror film or TV show. They’re not like zombies, vampires, werewolves or serial killers, all of which will do predictably horrible things to their victims.
Can ghosts … kill you? Injure you? That usually doesn’t make sense, given their non-corporeal nature. Can they … scare you to death? How would that work? Would they cause a heart attack? Or drive you mad? That’s fine, I suppose, but here they’ve taken a back seat to the demons of horror films since 1973’s “The Exorcist” spawned a sub-genre with far more frightening supernatural baddies. Are ghosts supposed to inspire existential dread, by reminding the viewers of their own mortality? For me, that backfires — their existence would strongly suggest the existence of an afterlife, which would be paradoxically reassuring.
It’s therefore a testament to the quality of Netflix’ “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018) that it’s frequently so scary, even to me. We find out in the first episode that its ghosts indeed do more than frighten the story’s protagonists, but it’s the show’s writing, directing and acting that make it so memorable. It’s an a superb viewing experience, and I’d rate it a 10 out of 10.
The cast roundly shines — but especially Carla Gugino and Timothy Hutton (even if his performance was a little understated). Catherine Parker is deliciously evil in a supporting role as the house’s most outwardly vicious spirit. The best performance, for me, however, was the young Victoria Pedretti as the traumatized Nell — she was goddam amazing, and deserves an Emmy nomination.
Mike Flanagan’s directing was perfect — his use of long angles and colors to make lavish interiors disorienting reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s similar sensory trickery in “The Shining” (1980). Michael Fimognari’s cinematography was beautiful. Even the makeup effects were damned good. (Nothing beats Greg Nicotero’s work in “The Walking Dead” universe, but the work here is sometimes horrifying.)
I’m not the only one who loved this show either. It is broadly praised in online horror fan circles (though I’d recommend avoiding most of those for spoilers). I haven’t read Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel that is its source material, but a bibliophile who I trust assured me that the show is even better.
Sure, there were some things that didn’t work for me. “The Haunting of Hill House” actually does take a while to get where it’s going; it favors in-depth, flashback-heavy character development over advancing its plot, in much the same manner as “Lost” (2004 – 2010) once did. And some viewers might feel the same frustration here as they would for that show.
Its story and supernatural adversaries are also distinctly Gothic. (Your mileage may vary as to what’s a comfortably familiar trope and what’s an archaic cliche. I myself was more interested the more modern and three-dimensional interpretation of ghost characters seen in 1999’s “The Sixth Sense.”) I’d even go so far as the say that the first ghost that we see in any detail is actually disappointing — the otherworldly figure connected with the bowler hat felt too cartoonish for me, like something we’d see on Walt Disney World’s “The Haunted Mansion” ride. (Trust me, they get more intimidating after that.)
Give this show a chance — and stay with it if you think it’s too slow, or if you find its characters a little unlikable at first. You’ll be glad you did.
Weird world: if the diffident, sometimes off-putting character of Steven looks familiar to you, it might be because that’s none other than Michiel Huisman, who plays the charismatic Daario on “Game of Thrones.”
[THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR SEASON 1 OF “FEAR THE WALKING DEAD.”] “Fear the Walking Dead” has done something interesting. It’s taken two truly reprehensible characters, and made them the most attractive among an ensemble of protagonists in a survival-horror story.
I’m talking about Victor Strand and the young, troubled, drug-addicted Nick, who I’ve been reluctantly but undeniably rooting for since the closing episodes of last season. They’re both expertly played, by Colman Domingo and Frank Dillane, respectively. Colman is actually amazing: his deep voice and perfect line delivery should make him a leading man here or elsewhere, either as a hero or a villain. In just a couple of episodes, he’s easily become one of the best things about the show.
But these aren’t “good guys.” Or, at least I don’t think they are. Are they? Strand is openly a sociopath, and doesn’t even bother to hide it. He appears to act nobly in rescuing the group. But as Ruben Blades’ character, Salazar, shrewdly observes, he is almost certainly acting somehow according to his own self-interests. (And Salazar has been right about these kinds of things so far.)
As for Nick? No, I am definitely not judging the character about his addiction to illegal drugs. That would make him a flawed protagonist, not a bad guy. I’m talking about his demonstrated willingness in Season 1 to victimize the helpless in order to feed that addiction — he does nothing less than kill a sick, elderly man in order to get his “fix.” (I did understand that scene, didn’t I?)
And what about Salazar himself? He is easily the third most interesting character to me, and he’s perfectly portrayed by Blades. I want him to survive this show’s zombie apocalypse, simply because I enjoy watching him so much. He’s a former torturer for the El Salvadoran junta. That’s … that’s pretty much as bad as you can get, isn’t it? And this isn’t a character aspect that the viewer can easily put aside, as audiences did with the character of Sayid on “Lost.” (He was a past torturer with Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard.) Salazar’s deplorable skills are front and center at the end of the show’s first season, driving the plot.)
There’s nothing pathological about my attraction to these characters. (And I’m sure it’s shared by other viewers.) It’s just that these are creatively conceived characters on a show that seems to bungle its efforts to create anything resembling or interesting likable good guys. The remaining protagonists of “Fear the Walking Dead” are written to be utterly bland, even when they are very well portrayed by their actors. Travis (Cliff Curtis) is a one-note altruist. Madison (Kim Dickens) shows promise, but isn’t yet that interesting to watch. Alycia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) is a boring nice-girl. Ofelia (Mercedes Mason) is so forgettable that I can’t really remember how to describe her as I write this.
The worst offender, by far, though, is the character of Chris. I can’t imagine how dreadful a job it must be for actor Lorenzo James Henrie to play him. He’s an utterly punchable brat — an entitled, immature, self-absorbed teenager that makes you root for any zombies that pursuing him. I can’t imagine the show’s writers created him to be sympathetic … surely they must be setting him up as zombie fodder.
All told, though, the Season 2 opener last Sunday was good stuff. I’d rate it an 8 out of 10. Fans who were frustrated with Season 1’s slow pace (I wasn’t) will be pleased to discover that the show opens with an action sequence and a pretty skilled depiction of the destruction of Los Angeles. No, the show doesn’t have the same special effects budget as a major feature film. But this was still impressive — we get to see some of the destruction and mayhem that’s only been alluded to or briefly, limitedly portrayed via flashback throughout six years of “The Walking Dead.” (Remember the faraway shots of the bombing of Atlanta?)
The suspense is also quite good. I can’t really say much more for fear of spoilers. But I thought it was well written and intelligent, and I think it will please even seasoned fans of the zombie horror sub-genre.
This was pretty decent stuff. I think Season 2 should be a fun ride.
[WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON.”] Fun, fun, fun! Earth’s Mightiest Heroes roar back onto the screen with nearly all of the action, humor and spectacle of the wonderful original — I would give “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015) a 9 out of 10.
It’s got everything that you could ask for in a superhero movie, including another great villain in the form of James Spader’s “Ultron,” beautifully animated by CGI. A surprise standout was Elizabeth Olsen as the Scarlet Witch. She’s a great young actress whose work I really liked in 2011’s terribly under-appreciated horror-thriller, “Silent House.” She’s got perfect line delivery. I’d love to see future Avengers films include her in the lineup, so that she can trade quips with Tony Stark.
There’s some great writing — the backstory for the twins was suitably dark, and was a perfect motive for a hatred of Stark. The banter might not be as funny as the first film, but was still quite good. And there’s some nice thematic continuity with Marvel’s planned “Civil War” storyline.
The movie falls short of perfection with the occasional misstep. For example, the flashbacks/hallucinations that various characters suffer were clumsy, overdone, and sometimes befuddling. Compare them with similar scenes in movies like “12 Monkeys” (1995) or “Donnie Darko” (2001), or well made television shows like “LOST.” Captain America’s worst fear is some lame “The war is over” existential bullshit? No. Cap is supposed to be the personification of freedom and democracy — his worst nightmare would be a totalitarian state. Or an undead Bucky. Or better yet, being a man out of time, it would be the loss of his friends, his family and his true love.
A key conversation between two key characters at the end about mankind’s future is just a little too depressing for an Avengers movie. Also a little sad? The suggestion that the team’s lineup would change. Our existing roster is terrific — the fan’s love ’em and I believe all the actors are under contract. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Postscript: this movie is interesting because it shows the same superhero starring in competing film franchises. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s “Quicksilver” is the very same Marvel Comics’ speedster we saw played (and scripted with much more fun) last year by Evan Peters in “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” (There, he’s simply referred to as “a guy” or “Maximoff,” for copyright considerations, I guess.)
Blogging some of my past tv reviews from Facebook — this was my lukewarm response to “Revolution.”
The pilot of “Revolution” (2012) gets the high-concept sci-fi series off to a really good start — it’s smart, interesting, and it’s got a pretty original premise. (This is not a story about an electromagnetic pulse – the globe loses all electricity because of some other unexplained phenomenon.) I’d give it an 8 out of 10.
There’s a nice amount of pathos and action, including a clever use of a bottle of liquor in the pilot. There’s also some really good special effects depicting a post-apocalyptic world. (I can’t tell what is CGI and what is a matte painting, but it all works.) The script is damned good, including an awesome surprise at the end that I never saw coming, but which makes perfect sense.
Two things worry me about the show’s chances for success. One, the premise is interesting … for a miniseries. Or for one season of a television show. Or for maybe two seasons. After that, can we really remain interested in watching an agrarian society? Wouldn’t it just basically be “Game of Thrones” with a few firearms thrown in and a lot of obsolete machines lying around?
Two, this is a character-centric “soft” science fiction show with an overarching mystery, obviously inspired by the success of “LOST.”. Which is awesome. Except, since “LOST,” shows like that rarely survive long on network television. “V” was deservedly short-lived, as was the superior “Flash-Forward.” Yes, “The Walking Dead” is a big hit, but that’s really more an episodic horror show, and it’s free to do more things because it’s not an a major network. For whatever reasons, programs like “Revolution” just don’t seem to last very long.
By the way – if anyone recognizes the Dad, and can’t remember where they know him from … the actor’s name is Tim Guinee. He played the unfortunate hospital orderly in “Blade” (1998). That was bugging me like crazy until I looked it up.
“The Strain” is a mostly successful attempt at serialized horror, adapted from the vampire novel of the same name by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. It’s a smart, fun, dark genre-buster combining a conspiracy thriller, an action adventure, a plague thriller and good old fashioned gross-out monster mayhem — there are even dashes of historical fiction via flashback.
It’s an ambitious story even for the original novel, covering vampirism as a viral epidemic that sweeps New York City. The putative heroes are two CDC investigators — though viewer loyalties will shift from these stock characters to the cooler and more interesting supporting characters — the tragic old curio shop owner; the quirky, gigantic exterminator; the local petty criminal; and the penitent computer hacker. The little boy is such a one-note character that he might as well be a prop.
The exterminator, Vasily Fet, is played beautifully by sci-fi fan favorite Kevin Durand. (I can’t help but wonder if the character’s last name is a “Star Wars” reference.) He’s a good actor, and his size and voice make him damn interesting as either a hero or a villain. (See “Lost.”) David Bradley, the curio shop owner around whom much of the plot revolves, does a great job, especially considering how cheesy the dialogue given to him sounds.
But by far and away, actor Richard Sammel steals the show. He is simply a fantastic bad guy — creepy, unsettling, frightening, hateful, insinuating and mysterious. This show has a great villain, and I liked rooting against Sammel’s creep far better that I liked rooting against the somewhat cartoonish “Master.”
For much of the time, the combination of the above story elements works out well. “The Strain” can be surprisingly creepy for a network show. The creepy-crawlies look great, even if they are reminiscent of “the reapers” of “Blade II” (2002), also directed by del Toro. (Wouldn’t it be great if there were a shared universe?) I’ve always thought that one of the scariest aspects of the vampire mythos was that loved ones can become enemies — the series wisely capitalizes on this more than once. And the entire conspiracy plotline actually is pretty unsettling, as it’s scripted convincingly and with some thought behind it.
Regrettably, all of these good things can’t sustain the scares and tension over the course of a full season of television. Once they are faced and defeated more than once, the vampires do lose a bit of their punch. The flashbacks to Europe (trying to keep this spoiler-free) grow tiresome and predictable, no matter how cool and original the idea started off. And compounding this is a great lack of tension supplied by the actors and screenwriters. Everyone is way too relaxed. It is probably the end of the world, via vampire apocalypse, and these chipper folks often seem like they’re kids meeting to work on an afterschool project. This isn’t helped much by a final action set piece that is directed so awkwardly it’s embarrassing.
Still, “The Strain” really is worth a look, at least if only to see if it’s your cup of tea. I actually do recommend it.
A little trivia — several episodes were directed by none other than RoboCop himself, Peter Weller.