A very short review of “Halloween” (2018)

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.

 

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A short review of “Vanishing on 7th Street” (2011)

“Vanishing on 7th Street” (2011) kicks off with an extraordinarily good start — it’s begins as an especially frightening supernatural apocalyptic thriller.  Nearly everyone in the City of Detroit disappears at once, leaving only several survivors to cope with ubiquitous shadow figures that wish to visit the same fate upon them.  The opening scenes completely intrigued me, and one early moment made me jump.

Hayden Christensen is good enough in the lead role — he actually is a competent actor, despite the movies for which he gained infamy in the early 2000’s.  (And I won’t name these widely panned films in which he starred, because I don’t want to start any wars with its ardent fanbase.)  Thandie Newton is predictably quite good, John Leguizamo is predictably awesome, and the young Jacob Latimore is terrific too.

How sad, then, that this creatively conceived thriller so utterly loses its way.  The film stumbles completely by the end of its first hour.  We spend far too much time listening to four characters bicker in an isolated stronghold while the failing lights flicker around them.  We also visit the same basic scare sequence a bit too often.  (It’s pretty damned scary when the shadow figures encircle our protagonists at first, only to recoil when they’re repelled by the light.  But it gets progressively less scary after the fifth or sixth time the movie shows this happening.)

There are enormous logistical questions about the plot’s setup and elements, too.  Virtually all are left unanswered by the movie’s somewhat ambiguous ending.  Was this … intentional?  Was the movie intended as some sort of open-ended abstract art film, instead of a complete horror story?  It certainly didn’t seem that way from its detailed and effective early scenes.

I can’t actually recommend this film.  But it’s … different and interesting, I’ll grant it that.  Based on the parts of it that scared me and piqued my interest, I’d rate it a 5 out of 10.

 

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A short review of “Killer Klowns From Outer Space” (1988)

“Killer Klowns From Outer Space” (1988) is generally a bad movie.  It has the depth and execution of a mediocre high school play; its acting and screenwriting are almost uniformly poor.  (The sole exception here is the wonderful character actor John Vernon, who is always fun to watch.)  I’m not even sure it tries to be a good movie.  But that’s probably okay with both the filmmakers and its target audience — as you can tell from its title alone, this is deliberate schlock.

And … it’s arguably pretty good schlock, despite its failings — depending on your tastes in bad movies.  I don’t think I’d recommend this movie to others, but I suppose I’d rate it a 6 out of 10, based on my own enjoyment.  In addition to its generous helping of 80’s cheese, “Killer Klowns From Outer Space” manages to do several things quite beautifully — namely its low budget creature effects, costuming and set design.

For a film so clumsily unimpressive, you’ve got to admit that a hell of a lot of creativity went into its titular monsters and their spaceship.  (They are not human clowns, the movie informs us, but alien monsters in the shape of clowns — and we don’t get any more exposition than that.)  The garish, creepy art designs are actually really damned good, and it’s easy to see why this film developed a cult following among fans of offbeat horror.  It’s also easy to imagine that coulrophobics (people with a phobia for clowns) might find this movie genuinely unsettling.

Here’s the good news — if you aren’t sure you’d want to spend money on this movie, you can currently watch it for free (and legally) right over at Youtube.  Here’s the link.

Postscript: I thought that Grant Cramer, who played one of the movie’s protagonists, looked incredibly familiar.  Yet I was surprised when I learned I hadn’t seen anything else in his filmography.  Here’s who I may have been seeing — he is the son of none other than legendary starlet Terry Moore.  Classic movie fans might remember her from any number of films from Hollywood’s Golden Age.  But if you’re a monster movie fan like me, then you remember her as the young heroine of 1949’s original “Mighty Joe Young.”

 

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A short review of the “Cabin Fever” remake (2016)

I don’t understand why the 2016 remake of Eli Roth’s “Cabin Fever” (2002) is so hated by critics and audiences.  It has a 0% rating over at Rotten Tomatoes, and reviews of the movie are withering.  I personally thought it was a very well made horror film; I’d rate it at least an 8 out of 10.

Sure, I understand the criticisms.  This is definitely an unneeded remake.  And the new cast here feels bland compared to the doomed vacationers in Roth’s campier, weirder outing 14 years prior.  (Although this isn’t a shot-for-shot remake, it still proceeds mostly from his original script.)

But the new “Cabin Fever” is well filmed, and it’s damned horrifying.  Director Travis Z significantly ups the gore, violence and frightening imagery — it’s not for the squeamish.  It passes the litmus test for decent horror movies, because it scared me.

Maybe I’m just partial to Roth’s basic story concept — a terrifying new illness that jumps from person to person in an isolated location from which it’s difficult to escape, turning them against one another.  It’s precisely the same plot driver as the one for John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982), which is among the greatest sci-fi/horror films of all time.  And I suppose Roth’s story could be taken as modern retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” with some of the director’s sadism and unique black humor injected into it via his screwball, eccentric characters.  Remake or not, this is still a creative change of pace from a genre consistently overcrowded with slashers and shrieking ghosts.

 

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A short review of “Killing Ground” (2016)

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.

 

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A very short review of “Crawl” (2019)

“Crawl” (2019) is an often corny creature feature that still delivers the scares quite nicely, given its decent special effects and its successful mashup of man-vs.-nature plots.  (Our father and daughter protagonists here must face off not only against the movie’s reptilian horrors, but also against the hurricane that conspires to aid the lizards’ hunt.)  Our heroes are portrayed by the terrific Barry Pepper and Kaya Scodelario, both of whom are better than the script’s forced and clunky family drama.

But the real stars here are the alligator-related catastrophes that we bought a ticket to see, and those are inventive and fun.  The movie feels like a particularly creative 10-year-old playing with his toy alligators in his sister’s dollhouse — but I mean that in a good way.  It totally works.  I jumped a couple of times, and that’s a pretty good sign that a horror movie is working.

I’d rate “Crawl” an 8 out of 10, and I’d cheerfully recommend it to someone looking for a decent new summer monster movie.

 

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A review of “Us” (2019)

“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.

 

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