Tag Archives: scary

E. Elias Merhige’s Suspect Zero

E. Elias Merhige’s Suspect Zero is an interesting piece for me. Although it’s almost universally looked at as a failure, a shell of what it could have been, I’m crazy about it the way it is and think they did a fantastic job. It has a bit of a muddy past: Zak Penn wrote the script back in the 90’s, after which it gained much interest from the likes of Tom Cruise, Ben Affleck and others. It took until 2004 to finally get the film made, resulting in a version that many frown upon and consider a shitty film. Balls to them.

This is a grim, eerie serial killer chiller with an atmosphere thick enough to slice with a razor, and one extremely unsettling lead performance from a haggard, haunted Ben Kingsley. He plays Benjamin O Ryan, an ex FBI agent. Or is he? He’s efficiently hunting down and murdering random people (or are they?), leaving vicious visual calling cards and deliberately leaving victims lying on state lines to ensure the Bureau’s involvement. In particular he takes a shine to raw boned Agent Mackleway (Aaron Eckhart), leaving specific clues for him. O Ryan employs a metaphysical method of finding his victims, using an old psychic technique from a scrapped program the feds once explored. This gives extreme stylist Merhige a reason to throw sketchy, disconcerting images, sounds and editing into the fray, providing a visually and aurally chafing experience. Merhige is infamous for making the surreal, experimental shocker ‘Begotten’, and he brings the same stark, discomforting qualities to the proceedings here. I’m reminded of another experimental director who brought a near elemental aesthetic to an otherwise grounded serial killer flick: Tarsem Singh with his brilliant psychological fantasy ‘The Cell’. Suspect Zero is the grimy, fragmentary cousin to The Cell’s grandiose beauty. There’s also traces of Sev7n, Silence Of The Lambs, Millennium and more, yet the film finds its own groove and never sinks into derivative gestures. Composer Clint Mansell ditches his trademark celestial tones for something truly unique, a dread soaked nightmarish lullaby that gives the film an otherworldly tone to linger in dreams.

From Kingsley’s unnerving introduction hunting down a stranger on the interstate to his haunted, sympathetic final moments you get a feel for this extreme character that only this actor can give, infusing O Ryan with a zen like resolve that’s perforated by the psychological damage within. Eckart shows brittle desperation and blesses his performance with a touch of noir, which is appropriate to the film. Harry Lennix, Kevin Chamberlain, Frank Collison, William Mapother, famed writer Robert Towne and Carrie Anne Moss all give great work too. If you can forgive a few instances of murky plotting and one or two cheap plot turns, you’ll hopefully enjoy this as much as I do. It really deserves better attention and praise than it has gotten so far.

-Nate Hill

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Joe Carnahan’s The Grey

When the marketing campaign came along for Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, they really tried their hardest to make it look like ‘that Liam Neeson movie about punching wolves.’ It’s understandable, because what we really got was a heartbreaking, human survival story rooted in character, streaked with sorrowful existentialism and so far from the rugged action film advertised. That kind of film is hard to sell in Big Hollywood, but it’s always better as filmgoers to receive something this thought out, carefully made, entertaining and deep when visiting the multiplex, and it’s gone on to become one of the best films of recent decades as well as a personal favourite.

Neeson is scary good as Ottway, hired gun for an oil company and resident badass at the remote Alaskan rig where hordes of rowdy labourers chase that paycheque they’re just gonna blow on booze the same night. On a routine transport back to Anchorage their plane crashes horrifically, scattering the tundra with bodies and leaving a handful of survivors to fight their way across the desolation. Led by Ottway, they soon realize their path has cut right trough the hunting ground stalked by a hungry pack of wolves, and they are now in the crosshairs as well as at odds with the cruel indifference of Mother Nature. The wolves here are never really seen clearly and don’t mimic what you might see on BBC’s Planet Earth, instead we get snarls, gristle, sinew and nasty unseen phantoms growling out there in the dark until one of them lunges for a kill. They serve not so much as literal wildlife but rather as harbinger of inevitability, a spectral reminder of one’s mortality in a situation like that, and the ever present fear of death.

Carnahan has a background in what you might call ‘manly movies,’ previously helming the excellently gritty Narc, the fabulous and underrated Smokin Aces and the silly reboot of The A Team, but The Grey is a brand new bag. Deadly serious, deeply thoughtful and surprisingly emotional, this is a film that loves its characters despite putting them through icy hell. Neeson is uncannily good, his character goes through sadness in ways that mirror real life tragedy the actor has been through, events we can see echo in his haunted, career best, primal howl of a performance. Dermot Mulroney makes brilliant work of Talget, a pensive man who just misses his daughter and holds onto that as will to live. Frank Grillo brings down the igloo as Diaz, a macho, hard bitten jerk-off who quickly discovers that such abhorrent behaviour is something both his fellow survivors and the wolves have no time for. Other fantastic work comes from James Badge Dale, Joe Anderson, Dallas Roberts, Nonzo Anozie, Ben Hernandez Bray, Anne Openshaw and more.

Roger Ebert said that the only time he ever walked out on a film was the next one in line after seeing this, and that sort of encapsulates the almost profound effect this one has. The first time I saw it was a bleary bootleg version on a laptop and I sat there stunned in silence after. There’s many aspects that went into attaining that quality, but what resonates and makes it work so well for me is how much it respects, loves, and treats its characters like actual human beings instead of cannon fodder victims for the wolves. They are all well developed, non-archetypal individuals, and it’s that that pulls you right into the story. There’s a scene where Neeson eases the passing of a fatally wounded man with comfort and grace, it’s easily the most devastating death scene I’ve ever seen filmed, made so by blunt realism and uncomfortable truth. My favourite scene has to be the remaining survivors sitting around a campfire, simply talking. They banter, Neeson shares a poem his father wrote, Mulroney tells a story about his daughter he misses so much and Grillo lightens their collective mood with a bit of humour. You feel like you’re sitting right there with them. A masterpiece on many levels.

-Nate Hill

Jonathan Kaplan’s Unlawful Entry

What if a cop decided that instead of serving and protecting civilians, he would instead stalk and terrify them? How would you deal with a scenario like that? Cops, after all, hold the power to arrest you or worse and unless you resorted to extreme measures, you’re kind of fucked. Jonathan Kaplan’s Unlawful Entry is a terrifying psycho thriller that explores this idea deeply and thoroughly enough to give any law abiding citizen nightmares. Kurt Russell and Madeleine Stowe play a nice yuppie couple whose home is broken into one night by a petty criminal. No one is injured, and the cop who shows up to investigate assured them that he’ll do everything in his power to keep them safe. The only problem is, this cop is played by Ray Liotta and in a film billed as thriller, that’s a dark omen. He’s affable and kind at first, but begins to envy this couple their suburban oasis, particularly placing an unnerving interest in Stowe, and pretty soon he’s gone full monster on them, with complete impunity no less. He wants her for himself, or maybe even isn’t sure what he wants but is nonetheless dead set on wedging himself into their lives like a juggernaut of violent, negative energy. Russell is helpless especially when the officer’s partner (Roger E. Mosley) wants nothing to do with their plight and won’t raise a hand against his comrade, perhaps out of fear himself. This is a scary film not just for the way it’s executed but for the fact that this *could* actually happen in real life. If you turn on the news or scroll through your phone’s feed you’ll see handfuls of headlines about cops getting up to all sorts of no good, reminding us that they too are only people and subject to fallacy and shortcomings. Liotta goes way way beyond that here though into outright monsterville, this is one of his trademark unhinged lunatic roles and instills straight up dread. It’s tough to watch scene after scene of Stowe being terrorized and traumatized by the guy and between and Tony Scott’s Revenge she really got put through a wringer early in her career, but if you’re the female lead in a horror thriller alongside Liotta, you can kind of see the storm on the horizon ahead of time. This is an intense, fucked up film that has razor sharp suspense, three very strong lead actors and a a spooky atmosphere. It also makes a great double feature with Jonathan Mostow’s Breakdown, another high strung Kurt Russell thriller where he yet again has to contend with a psycho who has his wife, albeit trading in rogue cops for rogue truckers. Both great films.

-Nate Hill

AMC’s The Terror – Season 1

AMC surprised me with The Terror, their long form adaptation of Dan Simmons’s horror novel. This is a horror story, but it’s also so much more, an entire world of storytelling woven into ten episodes that feel almost like real time, or at least that’s how invested I was. I also binged the whole thing in one sitting yesterday (don’t judge) so that probably helped to make it an immersive experience as well. This is flat out fantastic work on every level and probably the best thing the network has done, or at least my favourite.

The time period is the mid 1800’s, as the two real life Royal Navy ships the H.M.S. Eberus and H.M.S. Terror wind their way through the arctic, trying to find a Northwest Passage. Now anyone who knows their history ahead of time (I didn’t) recalls that these two vessels infamously disappeared out there, and all one hundred twenty nine of their crew were sadly never heard from again. This story blends fact, fiction, Inuit mythology and esoteric aspects to envision what might have befallen them, and the result is mesmerizing. Captained by Sir John Franklin (the great Ciaran Hinds) and Francis Crozier (Jared Harris), their situation becomes dire when the ships are moored in impenetrable ice and stuck for literal years. They face just about as many hardships as you can throw at a poor band of marooned sailors including dwindling food supplies, madness, mutiny and the elements but there’s also something else out there, something big, mean, savage and out to hunt or maul anyone who strays too far onto the tundra. Hinds does a stellar job as the brave but unsteady Captain, while Harris blasts into the stratosphere with a role that will probably define his career and serve as a glowing example of how to embody a brilliantly written character arc. Game Of Thrones’s Tobias Menzies is superb as Fitjames, their fussy third in command who learns some hard lessons. The cast are all absolutely on fire and there’s too many performances to praise here but standouts are Ian ‘Professor Quirrell’ Hart as the resilient badass Mr. Blanky, Christos Lawton as conflicted senior officer Hodgson and Paul Ready as Goodsir, a compassionate, thoughtful doctor. My favourite performance/character is that of Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen), an Inuit woman who crosses their paths and must tangle with the creature alongside them, she plays the fear well while holding her own in scenes that require careful internal intuition.

This show gets severely bloody and realistic in depiction of the monster attacks and all the other horrors that befall these poor souls. It’s violent, disturbing on a soul level, unrelentingly bleak at times and the depraved human behaviour on display is chilling. But despite all that, there’s a warmth, a fellowship among these men and you really come to care about them as much as they care for and try to help each other through an unimaginable ordeal. The environment around them is brutally indifferent to their plight, but there’s a sombre beauty as well and though much of it is CGI, it’s always breathtaking. Ice caps, frozen inlets and desolate plains open up to greet them, it’s a lonely place inhabited only by Inuit and the beast that hunts them. The original music by Marcus Fjellström is beautifully haunting and makes this journey all the more atmospheric. I’ve heard that AMC plans to make this an anthology and kick off season two with a different setting and story. If it’s anywhere close to as top quality as this, I’ll be there. One of the best season of television I’ve seen in a while.

-Nate Hill

Neil Labute’s The Wicker Man

You know the funny thing about The Wicker Man is that I actually found it really scary and disturbing. This was when I saw it at a younger age and the film has now since become a legend among legends among bad movies, something people use for meme stock, draw examples from on how to make a wretched flick or put on simply to laugh and throw rotting produce at. But there was just something about helpless Nic Cage stuck on Bowen Island (lol) with a bunch of creepy cult chicks who resent a man being on their turf and some fucked up rituals that he gets to witness first hand that. The isolation and hopelessness of this scenario really got to me but I’m not sure if it would still have the same effect, it’s been over a decade. In any case this is a shit film, full of bizarre performances and not even just Cage either. He plays a cop looking for an alleged missing girl on the island, on which his ex wife (Kate Beahan) coincidently also lives. There’s obviously some foul play around and he becomes consistently more frustrated, freaked out and lets his inner Cage come out to play. Ellen Burstyn must have not had her reading glasses on when passed the script because she’s actually trying here as the affable but slightly sinister matriarch of these neo-pagan kooks. Others are played by solid actresses like Leelee Sobieski, Frances Conroy, Mary Black and Molly Parker but none make impressions beyond caricature. I’ll tell you who I do remember though is James Franco and Aaron Eckhart in virtual walk on bits, it’s bizarre seeing them in roles so tiny, Aaron as a random diner patron and James as some off duty Sheriff. Wonder what the story behind the scenes is there, maybe they both had a multi picture deal, both saw the dumpster fire on the horizon and loopholed their way into inconspicuous participation. This film is a mess and ends in an unpleasant, bloody cascade of ugliness and violence, but it’s also hilarious in how heavy handed and tone deaf Cage’s performance is. He spends much of it simply running around the island in a suit yelling at people. Everyone always goes on about the “not the bees!!” scene and it is admittedly gold, but my favourite moment has to be when Cage, finally good and fed up with everything, calmly marches into a room, stares one of the sisters straight in the eye and spectacularly one punches her out cold. It’s an out of left field moment of volcanic hilarity worth a few rewinds or immortalization in GIF format.

-Nate Hill

André Øvredal’s The Autopsy Of Jane Doe

It’s always a good barometer to use Stephen King’s praise when it comes to horror films, and he had nothing but great things to say about André Øvredal’s The Autopsy Of Jane Doe, a gruesome and very scary little chamber piece with quite the unnerving story to tell. Set in a spooky underground morgue, a father son duo of coroners (Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch) get one last corpse sent their way by the county sheriff (Roose Bolton from Game Of Thrones) just as they’re about to shut down for the night. Labelled a Jane Doe due to lack of any identification, she’s one in a series of bodies found at a boarded up house, but cause of death is eerily unclear. These two toil away looking for clues as the night wears on and her corpse gets steadily weirder with every layer of skin, bone and tendon peeled back, but something isn’t right with her and soon our heroes hear creepy sounds, see bizarre things in the hallways and realize that the last place they want to be is stuck down there with her, especially while a raging storm prevents them from leaving. It’s a terrific setup for a nightmarish horror story, and all the elements make it work quite well. Cox and Hirsch are two great actors who sell both the father son drama and the burgeoning fear as each moment gets scarier than the last. Jane Doe isn’t a dummy or CGI but played by real actress Olwen Catherine Kelly mostly the whole time, adding an uncomfortable depth and realism to their predicament as we search her body for signs of movement or remaining sentience and squirm in our seats. The photography here is crisp and concise, the scenes lit to effect and the score drives them neatly too. There’s plenty of gore and look-away moments involving the autopsy (unless that’s your thing, ya sick fuck) but the real fear lies in story and suspense as we gradually learn who Jane Doe was and what is now happening around her, while poor Brian and Emile are stalked by all kinds of freaky shit and their apparently haunted radio starts to spaz out on them. I can see why King liked this so much as it greatly reminded me of his work, it’s smart and not too predictable with perverse attention to detail in the body horror and a slick, immersive premise. Highly recommended.

-Nate Hill

Jordan Peele’s Us

The idea of doppelgängers has been explored before in film, but never in a fashion quite as twisted as Jordan Peele’s Us, a furiously entertaining horror show that gets weird, wild and so refreshingly unpredictable in a genre where the climate tends to flatline with endless Conjuring universe carbon copies and what have you. There’s a ton of ideas at play here and it makes the film hard to pin down as one thing or the other, but it works beautifully as a breathless, streamlined home invasion shocker with deeply unsettling undercurrents and implications that can be read many different ways. When Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) was a young girl, she had a terrifying encounter within a shadowy hall of mirrors on Santa Cruz beach, an encounter which will herald the arrival of feral versions of her, her husband (Winston Duke) and two children (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) as they vacation at their summer house a stone’s throw away from that very same beach. The prologue with her as a kid is set in the late 80’s and has a retro horror feel as Peele uses his favourite scary movies as both fuel and inspiration for the style on display here. The home invasion of these shadow selves is a brilliantly staged piece of white knuckle suspense and impressive physical acting, especially by Lupita as both shellshocked Adelaide and her other self Red, a growling fiend who is the only one of them that can talk. She rasps enigmatically about stuff that seems like both straightforward exposition and cryptic allegory, hinting at the secrets in store for the third act. Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker are flat out hilarious as the Wilson’s bickering neighbours, bringing uproarious comic relief before confronting their own set of homicidal visitors. Lupita gives the strongest performance here in both her characters, a frantic dual role knockout that holds the film in panicky distress with her wide eyes and instills deep terror with what she does to her voice, she’s a consistently brilliant actress and I love her work in this. This is clearly a passion project for Peele, the imagination on display is something else and fresh new scripts like this are always welcome for me. Some may have issues with certain things in the third act like explanation and climactic resolution, but he deliberately leaves a lot of it for us to ruminate on instead of telling us every detail about what we just saw. There is a scene where Lupita’s Red imparts some of it but it’s still somehow told in a roundabout way and not laid open bare in spark-notes fashion. Some may find this frustrating, but I loved it. This is probably the best horror film I’ve seen since 2014’s It Follows, and definitely one of the most original. A shock inducing siege thriller, an acidic jab at personal identity and a quietly discomforting look at the rifts you can see beginning to form in the world today. Great stuff.

-Nate Hill