You would think that an alcoholic Jaime Lannister searching for the serial killer who took his daughter years ago in the misty Ontario woods would be a great premise for a thriller, but I couldn’t help feeling like something was missing in The Silencing, a certain spark or personality that would have made it really memorable. Nikolaj Coster Waldau is good in the role but he’s always got a welcome presence, I feel like it’s story that suffers here, from too many threads, none of which are tied up well enough save for the central killer plot. He plays this guy who is an ex big game hunting guru, now lives on a wildlife preservation sanctuary, drinks about 50 2/6’s of Scotch a day and gets real riled up when a body is found in the woods near his place, as it stirs up memories of his daughter and kicks up a drive to catch this killer. This is a role that dudes like Rutger Hauer, Michael Biehn, Dolph Lundgren or Lance Henriksen would have rocked in their 80’s heyday and if the film focused more on this one guy way out in the woods stalking a whacked out killer, I would have enjoyed it more. But there’s all kinds of dumb shit involving the local sheriff (Annabelle Wallis), her wayward young brother (Hero Fiennes Tiffin), the chief of tribal police (Zahn McLarnon), a First Nations crime boss (Gregory Odjig) and more. Why all this second tier fanfare? It clutters what would have been a streamlined, hypnotic tale of man versus man in nature and tries to do this whole True Detective ensemble whodunit thing that is just clumsy and tedious. Some of the chases and confrontations are fun, the killer wears a scary Cabela’s style onesie and uses a *truly* unique weapon to hunt his prey, while wild eyed Waldau fires his hunting rifle madly all over the forest trying to nail the guy. There’s one priceless moment where a schoolteacher brings a bunch of kids by the sanctuary on a field trip on a morning where Waldau is particularly sloshed. “Are you intoxicated?” She asks him horror, to which he slurs back “Don’t worry, the kids won’t notice.” They notice, and it’s hilarious. There are great moments and set pieces scattered throughout the film, but it’s not enough to save it from the weight of so much needless plot filler that I didn’t give a solid gold shit about. Give me Jaime Lannister hunting a killer through the woods for two hours straight and not much else, or don’t waste my time.
Stunning. Sensational. Complex. Deeply heartbreaking. Surprisingly romantic. The creators of The Haunting Of Hill House have done it agin with The Haunting Of Bly Manor, a lush, emotional, Victorian Gothic puzzle box of human drama, tragedy, memories that won’t die and yes, horror too although there’s less of it this time round. As one character remarks, “this is a love story, not a ghost story.” It’s true, and while Netflix hasn’t marketed it as such, if you go in expecting a romantic tragedy instead of full on horror like Hill House (think Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak) you’ll absorb the material with a clearer, fairer palette.
Our story starts as young American nanny Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) journeys from London to Bly Manor in the countryside, hired by nervous, boozy Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas, dutifully flaunting a posh dialect he’s clearly worked hard on) to look after his young niece Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and nephew Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth). Henry keeps well clear of Bly and the two children, content to wallow in his fancy London office, always at the bottom of a bottle for painful reasons we later are privy too. There she meets various complicated and, well written and flawlessly acted characters including tomboy gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve), stoic housekeeper Mrs. Grose (T’Nia Miller), lovable cook Owen (Rahul Kohli) and the black sheep among them, Henry’s shady, maladjusted valet Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson Cohen). Bly Manor itself, referred to in baroquely quaint terms by several characters as “a great good place,” is a world away from the omnipresent shadows, oppressive blue hued austerity of Hill House. Bly is rich, ornate, painted in deep chestnut browns, opulent dollhouse purples (the 80’s setting is proudly reflected in colour here) and the grounds adorned in brilliant green topiary, verdant meadows and beautiful rose gardens.
Now, my favourite part: the story. As told by a mysterious, wistfully mournful narrator played by the always brilliant Carla Gugino, this is a very dense, layered arrangement of interweaving love stories and subsequent tragedies, several ghosts and a host of human beings who all feel real, full of life and vitality and whose pain is shared greatly by the audience because of how excellently character development is cultivated, performance is calibrated and episodes are spun together on a loom of effortlessly fluid storytelling. Pedretti is a wonder as Dani, luminous and charismatic but one can see in her wide, drawn eyes and flighty mannerisms she has a painful past. Past and memory are important themes here, and every character, even the one painted as a flagrant villain, has something in their past that haunts them, causes them pain and dictates the choices they make in our narrative. Thomas is achingly restrained as Uncle Henry, Kohli raw and potent especially in an affecting campfire monologue that encapsulates everything we know, feel and wonder about life and death in one pure utterance. The two children are superb in quite difficult roles that require them to change tone, pitch and mood quite frequently. This story reminded me of those staircases in Harry Potter that continually shift their angles and pitch people out into unfamiliar hallways without warning. This narrative does the same for its characters, trapping them in ‘tucked away’ memories that seem arbitrary at first until you realize it’s for them to come to some realization or epiphany. I love that sort of reality melding, spaced out storytelling that uses memory and the mind in a literal sense and setting, it’s used to fantastic effect here and the story, while structured similarly as Hill House, is its own nesting doll narrative full of complexity and shifting components. Is it scary? Well, aside from a few effectively chilly moments no, not really, and nothing comes close to some of the skin crawling sequences in Hill House. But like I said, it’s more of a human story with life in its veins, and the most disturbing, distressing elements are the emotional rigours these human beings must endure, the torment that memory can inflict, the potent pain of a deep heartbreak, the deep wounds that grief imprints on one’s soul and the ways in which some may find redemption and others… not so much. It’s a tough, emotionally devastating tale and especially so for those who feel deeply and get invested in story and character, it takes its toll. But it’s a gorgeous, challenging, complex, beautifully rewarding experience in the same token, and I’m grateful to Mike Flanagan & Co for doing something equally as spellbinding as Hill House, yet cut from a different sort of cloth altogether. If this were a nine hour film (which is how I recommend you view, it demands to be binged in rapturous immersion) it would be my number one of the year.
So there’s a sequel to this Creep film called, you guessed it, Creep 2! It’s actually a way better, richer, more interesting and creepy story than the first, mainly thanks to the fact that our documentarian avatar isn’t some flaccid film school dweeb this time around but someone who is almost as fascinating a character as Mark Duplass’s Creep. He sports a man bun here, and if anything this film escalates the events of the first quite considerably: Creep has switched up his MO from the same old killing ritual into something more… shall we say, elaborate. The person forced to observe his antics this time is Sara (Desiree Akhaven), a web series content creator who deliberately puts herself out there and tries to meet the wildest, weirdest human creatures she can just for those likes and subscribed. Well naturally she doesn’t know the half of what she’s wading into with this guy, and one must employ an unholy serving of suspension of disbelief to buy the fact that the literal army of red flags from this dude wouldn’t be enough to send her running to the hills sooner. However, there’s a certain… darkness to this girl, a magnetism towards danger that is apparent in her mannerisms and at times I almost felt like she subconsciously knew just what kind of person she’s dealing with and ran headlong into it anyways. In any case, he gets creepier and creepier and by the end the tension mounts to a respectable and appropriate level before the big WTF moment. Duplass has fashioned quite a character out of this guy, he’s this aloof, teddy bear dipshit who is almost benign enough to be a bro, and then subtly, carefully lets the crazy seep in between the lines and before we know it he’s gone full cuckoo bananas. This is the rare sequel that outdoes the first, and it would be nice to eventually see the trilogy completed. Maybe Creep goes to space? Freddy Vs. Creep?
So I remember this actor Mark Duplass from the amazon prime show Goliath, where he did a great job playing a very, very creepy dude. It was fascinating to see that there’s actually a horror movie out there called Creep where he does an even better job of playing a very, very, *very* creepy fucking dude. It’s one of those simple, zero budget camcorder horror flicks like Blair Witch, where you basically rely on acting to get the scares across, which this one does nicely. Writer directer Patrick Brice also stars as amateur videographer Aaron, hired by apparently terminally ill Josef (Duplass) to film his last messages so that his future kid can see and hear him. Sweet idea right? In theory yes, but Josef is one seriously weird dude, which comes across subtly at first, until things escalate and it becomes clear that not only is nothing he’s told Aaron probably true, he’s a severely unstable man, and possibly very dangerous. The film makes good use of the found footage/camcorder style, a medium I’ve always been defensive of as you can pull off a lot of unique tricks, in terms of horror. This isn’t as hectic as some in the genre though and takes a slow burn, less is more approach to the story. Everything hinges on Duplass and his performance, which is pretty much as unnerving as it could be, he’s blessed with this super casual, charismatically likeable personality that always feels like it could teeter over into uncomfortable waters at any given moment. This proves to be quite suspenseful when our two leads are alone together which is, ya know, the entire film. My only criticism is that it’s a bit too minimalist I guess? Like, I got that restraint is key etc but it would have been nice to throw *just* a bit more ballistic/balls out horror elements in to tip the scales slightly. As it stands though, this is still an effectively disconcerting psycho stalker thriller that does just what it’s title promises.
Gareth Evans, no matter the genre he’s working in, has a tendency to throw everything he can think of into the mix, and it’s a tactic that has won me over. In his monumental Raid films it was action sequences piled onto each other so fast and furious it left the viewer gasping and in his gorgeous, positively blood saturated pagan horror extravaganza Apostle it’s every kind of gristly, folk horror inspired, uber-gory piece of horror mayhem you could shake a bloody stick at. Dan Stevens and his eyes so intense they could melt steel play a haunted missionary sometime in the 18th century, tasked with infiltrating a spooky cult residing on a British Isle, the last known location of his estranged sister who has up and vanished. After a stormy, discomforting boat ride out from the mainland, he arrives to find a drab, bleak spirited colony full of whispers, shadows, brooding malcontent and the subtly felt presence of something… otherworldly. The tribes leader is a man of frothing fervour, played by the always excellent Michael Sheen in an impossibly implosive turn with a nice, unexpected arc. The villain isn’t who you think it’s going to be here and once the real piece of work antagonist rears their head, the film shifts from creeping uneasiness right into third gear of fucking maniacal, over the top horror mayhem that doesn’t quit until the exhale on the heels of one of the most jaw dropping third acts I’ve seen in a while. Stevens is a terrific actor in any role, I greatly enjoyed his work in the underrated Liam Neeson thriller Walk Among The Tombstones as well as the schlocky 80’s inspired bit of madness that was The Guest. He’s brilliant here, a picture of hell before he even arrives on the island, and progressively more fierce and despairing as each passing hurdle beats him down. Sheen turns on the wild eyed tenacity as the zealot chieftain who discovers that mutiny and past deeds aren’t even the worst things about to befall him and his freaky little community. This is a ruthless, mile a minute slice of horror and there’s some shitty humans doing terrible things to each other that one must bear witness too, but there’s also some darkly beautiful elements of earthen, witchy horror that balance out the crazed religious mania with something refreshingly more esoteric. Just wear a metaphorical raincoat though, because there’s so much blood n’ gore in this one that no matter where you sit you’ll feel like you’re in the splatter zone. A pretty magnificent horror film.
Lord help me, this is how you do filmmaking. I haven’t seen a SciFi horror this good since… who knows since when. Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor is a sensational, surreal, coldly animalistic, shockingly violent exercise in retro futurism, psychological netherworlds, jarring identity crises, lethal corporate espionage and unnerving body horror. Cronenberg, son of David, isn’t just a chip off the old block but outright surpasses most of his Pops’ work that I’ve seen with this stunningly original, unforgivingly oppressive piece. Andrea Riseborough gives a haunted, waif-like, primordial turn as Tasya Vos, a contract killer whose hunting ground is the mindscape, the price being she begins to lose her own mental footing amidst traversing that of others. She works for a shadowy firm run by spooky handler Girder, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in another one off her increasingly unsettling, opaque turns. Tasya infiltrates the minds of chosen targets, takes over their cognition and motor function, using them as scapegoats to carry out high profile assassinations. Her newest target is a corporate pretty boy (Christopher Abbott) who is dating the daughter (Tuppence Middleton) of a powerful, mean spirited business magnate played by Sean Bean in some of the liveliest, boorish work I’ve seen from him in some time. This job proves difficult once Tasya’s mind begins to meld with her host’s, the lines blur and things get out of hand pretty quick. This is a punishingly violent film, and there’s a few genuine bury your face in someone’s shoulder moments, even for those with strong stomachs. Cronenberg flaunts the same fetishistic fixation on what practical effects can show in terms of physical decimation to the human body that run in the family, and the results of his creative exploration are nothing short of soul-disturbing. He also shows a flair for the surreal too, as you can see by the poster. There’s some otherworldly imagery, sound and tactility at play here that give this a nightmarish atmosphere that is pure and singular, thanks also given to a wonderful, elemental electronic score by Jim Williams. There are some themes that border on the taboo, or at least notions I’ve ever seen so bravely explored in horror, such as letting go of the familial/societal boundaries established in the modern world and reverting back to a predatory state of existence, I don’t know about you but that kinda makes my skin crawl in this context. I suppose my one issue would be that there are no characters to care about, the only one I felt sorry for was Tuppence Middleton’s unwitting girlfriend, her’s is the only performance with any warmth or genuine humanity in it. But I realize that’s kind of what Cronenberg & Co are going for here: this is a cold, pitiless piece of horror extremism that isn’t here to reinforce the core comforts of human nature, but rather to turn over every stone and dig up the long suppressed aspects of it that no one wants to admit are there. An arresting, darkly beautiful piece of trippy retro SciFi splatter bliss, and the best film of the year so far.
If Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond is beyond anything it’s the borders of good taste, for the most part anyways. This is a slimy, gooey, sleazy, schlocky piece of ooze that functions on an inherently terrific central premise, but drags it through the muck of lowbrow, lurid horror, and without apology. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, just not what I was expecting I guess, or not to that level. Gordon totem Jeffrey Combs plays a twitchy lab assistant whose piece of work boss (Ted Sorel) has patented a weird machine called the ‘resonator’ which uses psychic vibrations to enlarge the human pineal gland and open the doors of perception to whatever horrific beings lurk out there in other dimensions, which in this case is not as many as I’d hoped. A seemingly idealistic yet surprisingly corruptible psychologist (Barbara Crampton) and a cavalier police detective (the great Ken Foree) escort traumatized Combs back into the house where these experiments previously went berserk and wouldn’t you know it, someone pulls a whoopsie, turns the resonator thingie back on and it all goes berserk again! Thing is, I was expecting an impressive variety of ghoulies, icky aberrations and Lovecraftian hoo-hah to emerge and terrorize them, and the only thing that really does is a severely malformed new version of Combs’s boss, as you can see on the charming poster in my photo grid. He’s an admirably gross special effect, but where’s the variety, man? Where’s the whole zoo of disgusting unholy fuckers to rival something like… Carpenter’s In The Mouth Of Madness? Maybe this thing had budget constraints, lack of creative juices or what-have-ya, but I just felt like there could have been… more, given such a delicious setup. Also, there’s some trashy bits that were unnecessary, a weird, awkward S&M freak show vibe that didn’t need to be shoehorned in and take it from someone who appreciates the uber-kinky aura in something like Hellraiser (where it was appropriate) when I tell you… it was not necessary here, it cheapens and dilutes the potential for true otherworldly horror. By the film’s climax we get several folks running amok with their sentient pineal glands protruding from their foreheads like glistening head-penises and it lands squarely in WTF-ville. Anyways there’s scenes that are ok, with the neat 80’s effects, score and aesthetic, but something just feels… ‘off’ about this one. Like the freaky deaky aspects that are so much fun in other similar films just.. landed with a clunk here. I dunno, maybe it’s just me, but a film with such a cool concept just should have done more, and avoided being so trashy in certain key areas.
I love films that combine a childlike element of fairytale sensibility with the horrors of our world, and Issa Lopez’s Tigers Are Not Afraid does this almost flawlessly. Set in the slums of Mexico, recently orphaned Estrella (Paola Lara) navigates a run down part of town, pursued by the ruthless cartel gang that murdered her mother in cold blood and haunted by ghosts both literal and in her own mind. She joins up with a sort of Lost Boys troupe of fellow kids whose parents were also slaughtered, and together they face down the gang threat, survive by relying on each other’s trust and navigate a chapter of their lives that they are heartbreakingly too young to have to burden. This is a sensational film in every way, and I award it the elusive 10/10 rating, it fucking floored me more than I have words for. What makes it so special is how fluidly it blends genre, style and tone to the point where every element feels congruent with the rest and instead of a film discernibly fashioned together from different elements we get one that feels like it’s own lifeblood, free of comparison. The child actors are all brilliant, especially Lara who imbues Estrella with intuition and soul far beyond her years. She feels the spiritual presence of the dead around every corner, but the ghostly visions aren’t there for cheap scares, they have a very crucial part to play in our story and work seamlessly alongside and within her arc. The villains are a despicable breed, heinous cartel monsters and a brat political wannabe who calls their shots, brutalizing and breaking down this neighbourhood to the point of ruin and despair. But there’s hope! There must be hope, even in the darkest, most forgotten corners of the world. Estrella and her newfound friends are beacons of hope, resilience and the the unheard voices of the lost, the forgotten and the marginalized. Their voices and story are something so human, and so affecting I dreamt of this film last night after viewing it, as if it followed me into sleep with a few more narrative beats to give. It’s that important a piece, feeling at once like horror, fantasy and crime thriller but most importantly, a deeply character based, very personal story of human beings encountering unimaginable obstacles at the very start of their lives, and how their courage can find light even when things are darkest. Dare I say.. masterpiece.
I never realized just how many slasher flicks Jamie Lee Curtis did back in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Well, she only did four, but that’s still two more than I was recently aware of and I probably never would have stumbled upon Terror Train if Prime hadn’t put it top of the queue for awhile. It’s a decent enough horror exercise that is of course no match for Halloween, but has it’s moments. Curtis and a whole pack of rambunctious college partygoers are living it up aboard a train that’s barrelling though rural Quebec in the dead of night. Several of these people were involved in a very nasty prank a few years before and the person they preyed on has returned to prey on them, in the slow build, one by one, gruesome slaughter fashion we’re used to seeing in these types of flicks. It’s essentially your garden variety slasher flick set on a train and is entertaining enough, although never close to anything you might call scary. Curtis is good as the one in their group with the strongest moral compass, who realizes quick that their past isn’t done with them yet. Infamous magician David Copperfield shows up here playing, you guessed it, a magician who entertains these college kids when they’re not drinking or getting hacked to pieces. There’s a salty old train conductor (Ben Johnson) who begins to figure out something is wrong pretty quick, and I enjoyed his keen awareness because usually the slasher lore dictates that any staff or fringe players are clueless until the hammer eventually comes down on them. Pay close attention to certain scenes where the killer is hiding in very plain sight and see if you can tell who it is (it was fairly obvious to me), they picked a very weird, kinda ‘evil pixie’ looking individual whose creepy appearance goes a long way. It’s not a horror classic by any standards, but gets the job done for fans of the retro aesthetic, plus movies set on trains always have that going for them by default.
Blumhouse has been very inconsistent with their recent horror output (I’m looking at you, Fantasy Island) but I’m happy to report an absolute winner in J.D. Dillard’s Sweetheart, a terrific little monster movie that plays like LOST meets Cast Away by way of All Is Lost with a touch of Creature From The Black Lagoon, the black lagoon in this case being the blue waters of the South Pacific. For the record, I don’t mean to cheapen any original price of art by comparing it to other films that from which inspiration is drawn or call attention to the fact too much but I find that doing a quick mood board like that can be a handy way of drawing folks in to my review and, more importantly, the film itself. Anywho, this one sees a lone girl (Kiersey Clemons) wash up on the tropical shores of Fiji after some sort of shipwreck. She does her best to survive and gather food but when night falls she realizes she’s not alone, and there’s a weird ocean dwelling creature that snoops around after dark looking for prey. So begins a frenzied fight for survival and a battle for her life against this aquatic freak show that only gets more complicated when two former friends (Emory Cohen and Hanna Mangan Lawrence) arrive on a floaty raft. This is her story though and Kiersey gives a sensational performance full of life, organic vitality and genuine spirit even when there are long stretches with no dialogue. The creature is a hulking, slimy beast that just won’t relent, the special effects makeup used effectively to create a tactile, biologically believable… thing. Dillard makes his debut here and I commend him for incredibly strong work. There’s a brilliant and utterly terrifying scene involving an emergency flare lighting up the night horizon that nearly had my running out of the room, conceived and directed with great innovation. There’s a beautifully synthy score by Charles Scott IV that reminded me of Stranger Things, kicking into gear in all the right places to bring the action alive. It’s a terrific horror film with a fierce emotional core thanks to Kiersey’s performance, genuine thrills and a slick sense of wonder. I’ll end with a quote from our main character that stuck in my mind and proves that an 80 minute monster flick can have all the depth and introspect in script as any Hollywood drama: “For a lot of my life, I’ve struggled with being believed. The truth doesn’t always come with a receipt. Sometimes all we have is our word.” One of the year’s best films so far.