A review of “The Purge” Season 1 (2018)

“The Purge” franchise continues to defy expectations after its move to television.  It still isn’t high art, and it probably can never fully transcend the high-camp trappings of its premise.  (I suppose it’s hard to script a truly grounded horror property about people in Halloween costumes murdering one another with impunity on a designated “holiday.”)  But, like the movies preceding it, the USA Network’s new dystopian horror show is still a bit smarter and more interesting you’d expect from its bizarre central plot conceit.

The 10-episode first season, which aired with seemingly little fanfare last fall, generally succeeds — I’d rate it an 8 out of 10, and I’ve spoken with a couple of other horror fan who were as happy with it as I was.  The people who recommended it to me are also big fans of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” (which has radically improved this season), and that makes sense.  Although “The Purge” has an entirely different feel than “The Walking Dead,” it also has a lot of common elements — both shows are milieu-type horror stories with a large, diverse group of characters negotiating a sprawling setting with innumerable deadly antagonists.

A surprising amount of thought went into this show.  There’s a nice degree of world-building and detail, with various characters embracing, rejecting or remaining ambivalent about the titular “Purge.”  The screenwriter here tries hard to round out the twisted America in which The Purge annually takes place, with a lot of creative and blackly cynical story elements.  (I’m not clear if the writer here is James DeMonaco, who wrote and directed the first three of the four “Purge” movies.)  We see, for example, a cult whose brainwashed members offer themselves up as willing murder victims, as well as anti-Purge revolutionaries who exploit the night to target the fascist oligarchical government which created the brutal holiday.  There are a lot of surprises in terms of plot, character and setting that I will not spoil here.

The gore and violence were surprisingly high for network television.  (Again, this show may be taking its cues from “The Walking Dead,” which always pushes the boundaries.)

Some of the acting is quite good — William Baldwin is absolutely superb, Lee Tergesen is always fun to watch, and the beautiful Hannah Emily Anderson is another talented standout.  I swore I recognized Fiona Dourif’s distinctive looks and mannerisms.  (She portrays the cunning cult leader who entices young people to sacrifice themselves, and I’ll be damned if she doesn’t totally look and sound the part.)  But, upon Googling her, I realized I’d never seen her before — she just reminds me of her father, who also plays a lot of bad guys — the amazing Brad Dourif.

Some of my enthusiasm for “The Purge” waned just a little as the season wound down toward its conclusion.  After Season 1’s unsettling ideas were left fully explored, the show did start to feel more like conventional television — right down to a standard good-guys-vs.-bad-guys shoot-em-up at its climax.  (If the show had fully sustained its tension until the end, I would have rated it a 9 out of 10.)  And the final minutes of Season 1 consist of a coda among three characters that is forced and preposterous … I’m surprised it made it past the editing stage.  But this still wasn’t enough to spoil the fun.

I should also note here that not everyone enjoyed “The Purge” as I and my friends did.  Critical and popular reaction to it is definitely mixed.  (As of this writing, the show has only a 42% rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, with just 63% of audiences liking it.)

Postscript — I could almost swear that the auditorium we see towards the end is the very same shooting location used for Thomas Smith’s school in “The Man in the High Castle.”  You can tell by the establishing shots.  It’s even lit the same way.

 

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A short review of “Patient Zero” (2018)

I’d be lying to you if I told you that “Patient Zero” (2018) is an especially good movie.  It isn’t.  It plays a lot like the classic “28 Days Later” (2002) would play if it were produced by the SyFy Channel, and by that I mean it generally is a poorly written, low-budget cheese-fest.  (This is one of those movies where even the score was kinda bad.)  Still, there were some hints of greatness hidden within this lackluster zombie movie — enough to save it from being a complete failure — and I would reluctantly rate it a 5 out of 10.  (Most other reviewers are not even that kind.)

First, it has some fine performers. These include two “Game of Thrones” actors who are always fun to watch — the mesmerizing Natalie Dormer and the consistently likable John Bradley.  (The latter seems to specialize in winning audiences over as the “hero’s-affable-friend” role.)  “Doctor Who” fans will of course recognize Matt Smith in the lead role.  But by far and away, they’re overshadowed by a fantastic performance by Stanley Tucci as the zombies’ surprisingly eloquent leader.  (More on that in a moment.)  Tucci is truly a great actor and he makes a perfectly menacing bad guy; his voice, diction and line delivery are goddam perfect.  His talent for voicing a magnetic, highly intelligent antagonist reminds me of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s portrayal of Negan on “The Walking Dead,” or one of the better “big bads” seen on “24” (2001 – 2014).

Second, there are some really clever ideas hiding under this thin, hasty script.  (I strongly get the sense that “Patient Zero” was a rush job for screenwriter Mike Le and director Vincent Newman.)  The hyper-kinetic zombies here are afflicted with “super-rabies” and are reminiscent of their ilk from “28 Days Later.”  But there is a truly intriguing plot conceit — their roars and screams are perfectly intelligible to Smith’s protagonist.  He speaks their “language” because he’s infected, but also mysteriously asymptomatic.  When he interrogates the zombies for the military, their interaction is filmed as normal dialogue (creating the opportunity for Tucci’s terrific turn here).  Then things get even more interesting when it’s demonstrated that the ostensibly mindless zombies are quite proficient at planning an attack.

I … might be treating this movie a bit charitably simply because I liked some of its ingredients.  Again, I don’t actually recommend it.  But your mileage may vary.

 

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A review of Season 1 of “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018)

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.”

 

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“The Walking Dead” scene I’m waiting for, but haven’t gotten yet.

  1.  Take two characters fluent in martial arts (Morgan, Michonne, Jesus, or whatever martial arts bad guys they come up with).
  2. Have them fight one-on-one with melee weapons on a hilltop (not THE Hilltop, just an open, elevated position somewhere).
  3. Have zombies advance up the hill to attack both of them from all sides, so that they not only have to fight each other, but also multiple zombies from various angles.

It shouldn’t take a screenwriting genius to realize that the fans want this, right?

Or am I the only 80’s kid who grew up loving both ninja movies and George A. Romero’s films?

Anyway … I am loathe to criticize the show these days.  It has gotten SO much better — SO much better.  Season 9 is like a different show altogether.

 

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