Mike Flanagan has done it again with his new Netflix limited series Midnight Mass, but at this point I’m pretty sure the man is incapable of making a misstep in his craft and is the front runner for consistency, quality and innovation among filmmakers working in the horror genre these days. Mass is the best thing he’s done since his now legendary foray into long-form Netflix storytelling The Haunting Of Hill House, a benchmark masterpiece that now sits alongside this equally breathtaking crown jewel in his career so far. Set on the tiny remote Crockett Island off the Canadian coast, it tells the story of many different townsfolk whose lives are all changed significantly with the arrival of a mysterious, unnerving preacher (Hamish Linklater), whose coming heralds other scary, biblically relevant events all over the island. Who is he? What has he brought with him from wherever he came from? The mysteries, revelations and narrative surprises here are too darkly delicious and exciting to spoil in a review so that’s about as far as I’ll go plot-wise. As is always the case with Flanagan, the human elements of character, dialogue, emotion and slow burn storytelling are just as important to him as gore, scares, horror elements and this is what makes him such a strong filmmaker. The acting sees uniformly career best work from Flanagan regulars and newcomers alike, with personal standouts for me including Robert Longstreet as the town drunk with a painful past, Kate Siegel as the deeply soulful schoolteacher, Zach Gilford as a haunted local returning after years and a guilt ridden tragedy, Samantha Sloyan in a terrifying showstopper as the world’s most despicable clergywoman and so many more, all excellent and all with their keystone moments to shine. Linklater himself is a force of nature, so horrifyingly effective as a serial rapist in the phenomenal Amazon Prime series Tell Me stout Secrets and again providing a masterclass here, he’s somehow perfected this acting vernacular and line delivery that is simultaneously as intense as a dragon staring you down but as gentle and lilting as a summer breeze, he’s an artist on another plane. The story and themes here are heavily rooted in Catholicism and Flanagan delves deep into issues of guilt, forgiveness, penance, reconciliation and delusional wayward souls mistaking evil for angelic salvation, but the material never feels preachy or aimed solely at the religious demographic, these are ideas, emotional arcs and universal concepts that are accessible for any viewer, simply refracted through the prism of an isolated town where Catholic values and practices are still a way of life. There are numerous monologues on life, death, the universe and the nature of the soul that are beautifully written and performed with aching soulfulness by several of the actors in Flanagan’s trademark patient, sedimentary long takes that allow words, conversation and emotion to flow freely and organically from the actors on their own time. The horror is at once human and otherworldly as we see this community descend into an escalating downward spiral that feels like the darkest nightmare, the atmosphere and tone straddling this sort of “Atlantic Coast Gothic” meets “Olde Worlde Demonism” type aesthetic that’s just the perfect flavour. This is the real deal; assured, immersive, eerie as all hell, humane, an emotional wrecking ball and one of the best experiences I’ve had with any show or film this year.
What if when someone went to sleep, whatever they dreamt of at night manifested in the space around them as real, tangible and sometimes very dangerous apparitions ? This concept and much more is explored in Mike Flanagan’s sensational Before I Wake, a film that somehow slipped past my radar back in 2016 but I caught up with it last night and, like most of Flanagan’s output, fell in love with this story. There’s just something so clear, emotionally resonant, palpably scary and well woven about this guy’s horror work in cinema and television, he’s my new muse in the genre. This tells the story of a very special young boy called Cody (Jacob Tremblay from Room and Doctor Sleep), who has the elemental power to project his dreams as reality when asleep. This can be both beautiful and terrifying because, like any human being, he has both good and bad dreams. His gift makes it hard to stay with one foster family for long before things get out of hand, until one couple (Thomas Jane and Kate Bosworth), already grieving the loss of their own child, decide to take him in. At first it’s just butterflies that inhabit their house when he sleeps, but he has a recurring phantom who won’t leave him alone, a gaunt, gnarly fiend he calls The Canker Man, and this dude is anything but harmless. Bosworth and Jane wrestle with their own suffering while trying to help him and figure out the esoteric properties of his gift before his demons spread. Bosworth is a quiet, observant actress not prone to dramatic histrionics or screen mugging, she has deep, soulful eyes and a drawn nature that hides emotional wells beneath and I enjoyed her work greatly here. Jane is the paradigm of gruff, alpha exteriors and doesn’t often get roles that showcase his vulnerable side but he’s fantastic here, laidback with emotion simmering on low. Tremblay is just pure talent, representing my hometown solidly and doing a terrific job here, as always. The cast is full of wonderful genre faces including Annabeth Gish as a compassionate social worker, Jay Karnes as a grief therapy counsellor, Courtney Bell and the always memorable Dash Mihok as a tortured former foster dad of Cody’s. I love films themed on dreams, especially in and around the horror genre and this is an exceptional piece. It’s scary, cerebral, character based, beautifully lit with splendid special effects and one gut punch of a twist ending that will get your tear ducts going in overdrive and is a showcase example of inspired storytelling. I have yet to see less than excellent work from Flanagan and his team, this being one of the best.
Stephen King’s Desperation is a decent enough TV-movie adaptation made perversely, hysterically memorable by one actor’s performance, which I’ll get to in a moment. It’s based on one of of two Nevada desert set books (the other being The Regulators) he wrote under his pseudonym ‘Richard Bachmann’ that exist in the same demonic dustbowl timeline and they are two of the best things he has written, just not quite as notorious as, you know, books that actually say ‘Stephen King’ on the cover. This is a grainy, leisurely paced but often quite brutal tale of various highway travellers terrorized, imprisoned and killed by a rogue sheriff who may be something more than human. They include an arrogant travel writer (Tom Skerritt), the cavalier roadie in his employ (Steven Weber), a spunky hitchhiker (Kelly Overton), a stranded couple (Henry Thomas and Annabeth Gish), a boozy old timer (Charles Durning) and others. The sheriff is played by Ron Perlman and he is the life of the fucking party here, a completely bonkers, unpredictably psychotic hoot who steals scenes and tramples over scenery like there’s no tomorrow. He’s got some truly perplexing one liners (“I love Lord Of The Rings!”) that make sense once you see that King himself wrote the screenplay for this and kept much of his trademark, pop culture laced bizarro dialogue intact. There’s spooky mythology at work here including haunted mining shafts, demon possession and legions of desert wildlife turning against our band of human survivors in the kind of well staged sequences that would have an army of animal wranglers working overtime. The film is about fifteen minutes too long and lags in places, and has the obvious look, budget and pacing of a very TV affair, but as a grisly little slice of oddball B movie fun, it works and there’s some inspired, Terry Gilliam style camera work that adds to the wonky vibe. It wouldn’t be half as fun without Ron Perlman though, who gives a deliciously deranged turn as one of the weirdest, wildest villains out there and deserves some sort of award, if not his own spinoff film. Good times.
Whenever people say there isn’t enough gritty, messed up modern neo-noir (which there’s some truth to, but that’s another article) I like to dig up ones like Texas Killing Fields, an unforgivably overlooked crime drama from some years back that went by mostly unnoticed. Directed by Amy Canaan Mann, who is none other than Michael Mann’s daughter, and starring a talent trio of Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Sam Worthington and Chloe Grace Moretz, it’s a dark-boned, nihilistic murder mystery set in the deepest south and populated by the kind of folks you’d actively avoid entire sections of the barroom to get away from. There’s a killer loose in the low income doldrums of Texas, as if they didn’t have it bad enough in life, and two scarily mismatched cops are on the case. Intrepid idealist Morgan sees the light in darkest corners, while faithless misanthrope Worthington adopts a hopeless, devil may cry attitude. Caught between them is a wayward teen girl (Moretz), a homeless sitting duck who wanders the byways, a prime target and unfortunate default bait for this monster to come skulking out of the shadows. This is a downbeat, chilling flick with scant rays of humanity here and there, but bleakness takes over the screen like the portentous clouds in the storm-swept skies of the rural Americas, bringing danger and decay in their wake. The suspect list is a mile long because of how many wicked character actors there are in the supporting cast, but the culprit is oddly obvious from the get go. This isn’t to say the narrative is weak or they failed at a whodunit, as one can scarcely say that was there intention at all. It’s less of a whodunit and more of a ‘dunit’, as every character has some evil to hide or stain on their soul, and when the killer is revealed, they’re just another in a long line of wayward beings out there. Sheryl ‘Laura Palmer’ Lee is great as Moretz’s destitute, promiscuous mother, Jason Clarke roars in for a terrifying cameo as a violent pimp with an otherworldly blond dye job, Stephen Graham is dangerously quiet as a psychopathic local yokel, Annabeth Gosh has a brief role and Jessica Chastain gives an early star-making turn as an out of state cop who reluctantly aids Jeffrey and Sam. Dread is the word that seems to be on both Mann and her cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh’s mind, as every shot is composed primarily of darkness, shadows and claustrophobic grain, giving the fields and flatlands of Texas a hellish, oppressive lacquer. Darkness is explored both literally and thematically, and more fervently than most mainstream films care to get, which may be one reason the film wasn’t well received at all, or at least by most. It knowingly plunges headlong into the eye of the hurricane surrounding the hopeless heart of humanity, without much light on the other side or any to guide it, but there’s a bravery in that that I respect. One of the best crime dramas in recent history, a film that should be brought up more in discussion and a treatise on how to make a lasting impression in a genre that sees entries fall through the cracks on the daily. Brilliant, searing stuff.