Josh Ruben’s Werewolves Within is the second snowbound, dark comedy werewolf movie made this year, which seems like a crazy coincidence until you remember stuff like Armageddon and Deep Impact or Volcano and Dante’s Peak, both pairs from the same year. It’s a popular trend and there’s always one that stands out as the better version of whatever sub genre they’re exploring, and this is certainly a far stronger film than Wolf Of Snow Hollow, which I was underwhelmed by. I don’t want to compare them too much but this one just nails the mile a minute dialogue, quaint characterization and pitch black comedic notes way better, and the inevitable whodunit of which character is the wolf is far more fun too. In a ski resort town in upstate NY, a various motley skeleton crew of local residents are being hunted and attacked by a werewolf, and one amongst them is responsible for it, hiding in plain sight. The twitchy, meek rookie park ranger (Sam Richardson) and bubbly, hyperactive mailwoman (Milena Vayntraub) try to keep the peace but these people love to bicker like I’ve never seen before, they’re worse than a room full of divorced parents. Some cast standouts include Wayne Duvall (Prisoners, O Brother Where Art Thou) as a smarmy, booze guzzling industrialist trying to buy out the town for an oil pipeline and Glenn Fleshler (True Detective, Hannibal) as a pelt adorned, perpetually grumpy mountain man who is sometimes indistinguishable from the werewolf itself and looks like he just walked in from Last Of The Mohicans. So begins an Agatha Christie type countdown as characters are dispatched in bloody fashion and the unveiling of the wolf’s identity draws nearer. The film is tons of fun thanks to a sharp, pithy script and a host of appropriately caffeinated actors who hit the ground running and all give wonderfully lively work. It’s kind of a slight, mild horror with the emphasis on comedy, it careens by like a rogue snowdrift and is a solid good time.
When David Gordon Green’s 2018 Halloween dropped I didn’t quite believe that talk of an entire trilogy was true because we’ve heard that one before. As such, there were things that felt unwieldy, strange and open ended in the narrative that are explored further and deeper in Halloween Kills, a film that is getting some serious bad mojo out there in internet land. Well, it’s certainly not perfect, but I still enjoyed it for what it was: an expansion on the 1978 Halloween night and Myers lore with a whole circus tent of new characters, comic relief asides, callbacks, fresh themes and a surprising amount of actors from Carpenter’s original film returning once again. It’s hectic, it’s cluttered, at times it feels like far too much is going on but there’s also this feverish momentum to it as Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie and her whole band frantically run about trying to track down Michael and kill him. There’s her daughter Karen played by the always lovely Judy Greer and granddaughter Allyson played by Andi Matichak, a wonderful actress who creates a character you care about and is the emotional lynchpin of this new vision, I like the dynamic between the three of them that is given more room to develop here. Will Patton returns as Haddonfield’s toughest Sheriff’s Deputy, it’s always nice to see him and I’m not sure what’s spoiler territory or not in mentioning who shows up but none of it seems to really be a secret, they are kind of hit and miss across the board. Anthony Michael Hall is oddly stilted and stiff as grown up Tommy Doyle (where’s the 78 Doyle actor?) , while Kyle Richards is utterly sensational reprising her role as now adult Lindsay Wallace, she has become a terrific actress, a beautiful woman and the closest the film gets to a true retro Scream Queen, she rocks it in the single most suspenseful Michael sequence I’ve seen in these intense new visions. Equally effective is the wonderful Robert Longstreet as adult Lonnie Elam, exuding the same gritty humanity he brought to Mike Flanagan’s Haunting Of Hill House and Midnight Mass. This might be the most ambitious Halloween sequel we’ve seen yet and, naturally, not all of it works or clicks into place in a way that feels earned and organic, but look back at each instalment in the canon and you’ll find films that aren’t perfect, are rough around the edges but to a true diehard fan of this franchise (raises hand) all have some lovable quality or aspect that can be enjoyed and held dear. Except for for Resurrection, fuck that movie right up it’s Jack o’ lantern ass. But Kills is a sequel with a lot of inspiration and heart for the Myers mythos, the overarching Haddonfield saga and the slasher motif. There’s a sequence in the film where Haddonfield’s residents are whipped up into an angry, frenzied mob trying to hunt down Michael, but they become a maniacal, non thinking rabble with tunnel vision instead of carefully examining their situation and forming a tactical, realistic plan. I see a lot of that on the interwebs, where one bad review snowballs into a fervour of keyboard mashing until a big dumb mob forms to rip the film a new one. But did that first guy even see the thing, or form a focused, logical assessment of why the film is bad? Did you, dear critic, even read that before suiting up and joining the ranks? If you saw Halloween Kills and genuinely thought it was a bad film and can concisely articulate for us why it didn’t work for you, then carry on. But don’t just pitch your voice in tune with the din because that’s the way the fish are swimming, because that doesn’t make you cool, babe, it just makes you boring. I for one got a lot of enjoyment from the film, both in that special nostalgic spooky way the original two films made me feel and in a fascinating expansion of lore sensibility too. It’s not a perfect film and maybe not even a great one, but it sure works as an effective, formidable and entertaining chapter of the Michael Myers legacy for me.
I wasn’t quite prepared for Can Evrenol’s Housewife, a disarmingly gruesome slow burn horror flick that I went into blindly on purpose. Had I looked it up first I might have seen that Turkish director Evrenol is also responsible for another notoriously fucked up horror called Baskin, which I’ve heard many a rumour about but have been circling for years as I just don’t have the stomach for the heavy stuff like I used to. Anyways I waded into Housewife uninformed and unassuming and, well… it’s quite the fucking experience. It tells of a girl (Clémentine Poidatz) living in Istanbul with her husband, who is troubled by nightmarish dreams of her traumatized youth where she watched her mentally ill mother murder her older sister, for starters. She always feels on the edge of that same mental instability, which is put to the test when she reconnects with an estranged best friend who has become deeply involved with a dangerous doomsday cult, particularly it’s charismatic leader (David Sakurai). The film starts off as an eerie, cerebral, glacial buildup full of terse atmospheric visuals and a truly genius, beautifully spooky musical score but as soon the cult angle barrels into the narrative it gets wild and bloody pretty quick, which is a shocking left turn. The ever present yet unseen threat of something bad turns into a geyser of gore, torn off faces, ruthless umbrella shankings, slimy demonic babies, hooting and hollering insanity of clamouring cult members and a third act that is so far beyond the stratosphere of subtlety that all I could do was laugh with the characters as they succumb to the frenzied, maniacal final beat of the narrative that would be too much if it wasn’t just too damn hilarious in a “throw your hands up and surrender to the shenanigans” type of way. I think I liked the first half of the film more, it feels like the measured, dread soaked first two acts of Rosemary’s Baby in tone and atmosphere, obviously way more R rated, contemporary and balls-out psychosexual than that creaky old classic. And where that one never showed the grisly viscera in person, only ever suggested it, this film shows *everything*, and trust me it ain’t pretty. There’s an ethereal beauty and calculated, delicate menace to the buildup and while the third act fells a tad cluttered, a bit too grotesque in some frames and nothing like the hushed, reverent opening acts, I admired its sheer willingness to plough head on into kinky, perverse, violent sex games and some hysterically over the top Lovecraftian cosmic pandemonium. It’s good, but bring a titanium lined stomach or a Costco orders worth of barf bags because it’s a truly sickening experience, the kind of gross-out Euro erotica shocker madness that most North American audiences just are not used to.
A vicious serial killer toys with cops in a dark, unnamed urban hellhole and no I’m not talking about Fincher’s Seven or even that Keanu Reeves Watcher flick. Fall Down Dead is an apt title for a murky, messy shocker that falls down wayyyy below the horror influences it’s inspired by and is a pretty lame excuse for horror, saved only by the spectral presence of the great Udo Kier. Playing a nasty mass murderer called the Picasso Killer, his MO is to slice people up with a straight razor and use their blood and tissue for artwork on canvas, and he’s set his sights in single mother Dominique Swain, who has the misfortune of running into him on Christmas Eve as she heads home through a curiously deserted city (filmed in North Carolina). From there it’s a series of tired jump scares, chases and impossibly athletic kills (Kier was like 70 here and he jumps off ten foot ledges like an acrobat lol) as he follows her into an empty office building where she joins forces with a sleepy security guard (David Carradine) and two Eastern European police detectives who seem oddly out of place stateside, but then again I suppose Udo does too. Swain doesn’t make a half bad scream Queen in general, I’ve always loved her vibe and her presence is always a plus for me somehow, even in stuff like this. Carradine is so lethargic and unenthusiastic you couldn’t even call his performance a phone-in, it’s about five minutes of him looking like he got dragged to a Christmas dinner with every set of in-laws on the planet, he just flatlines, grabs his paycheque and bounces with nary a moment of memorable screen time. Kier, however, is the life of the party as usual, he has this otherworldly, transfixing charisma and even hopelessly shitty junk like this he somehow makes it worth watching, if you’re a fan. His killer here is a vampiric, nearly invincible razor wielding maniac with who purrs and hisses out hysterically ridiculous lines like “Now you’re mine”, “I’m going to cut off your skin” and “Your blood will paint my canvas.” He’s a hoot, and pretty much the only reason to dive into this dumpster. Stay for a post credit scene, if you get that far!
Be careful who you marry because they could end up being like the dude in Devil’s Pond, a so-so two person horror flick that sees a newlywed couple (Tara Reid & Kip Pardue) embark on their honeymoon to a remote cabin on an island in the middle of a lake, only for her to discover that her charming new husband is in fact a possessive, volatile nut job who has no plans on letting her leave this island… ever. Now, you would think there’d be signs of this guy being a loonie early on or at least something to suggest to her that he might not be a trustworthy spouse, but experience, my own and that of others around me, has taught that you can think you know someone pretty damn well only to have them pull the rout out with no warning bells and turn out to be an absolute monster. It’s a tricky situation because the island is smack-dab in the kiddie of this giant Montana lake, it’s boat accessible only and hubbie keeps the keys to his truck, parked over on the lake’s edge, on his person at all times. This leaves her to play a dangerous, breathless, brutally violent game of survival and wage a battle of wills with him so she can escape, always trying to elude his psychological torment and scary outbursts, overcome her intimidating fear of water/swimming and get out of this nightmare. The performances are good, Pardue does a serviceable lunatic routine pretty well, but Reid surprised me with a disarmingly well calibrated turn. I’m used to her in disposable teen comedies and whatnot, where she’s usually the ditzy chick and the only thing I ever consistently rewatch with her is The Big Lebowski where she’s basically the original ditzy chick prototype. She actually comes across as likeable, desperate and earned my sympathy here with emotional beats that felt authentic and a well rounded character, so good on her. The film overall is nothing special, just your run of the mill psycho husband thriller with a nice spin provided by the uniquely situated location. Just good enough to be solidly entertaining, if not much more.
Schizophrenia is a delicate subject to tackle in cinema; if you get too sensationalistic and thriller oriented you lose the honesty of the affliction, but if you get too bleak and oppressive with realism you’ll chase your audience away. I’m pleased to report that Castile Landon’s Fear Of Rain is a beautiful, haunting, truthful and compassionate portrait of the illness that incorporates a fragile character study, emotionally affecting family dynamics and an almost unbearably suspenseful thriller narrative for not only one of the most powerful films this year, but one of the most intelligent and thoughtful depictions of this unfortunate condition in cinema thus far. Madison Iseman is Rain, a teenage girl who has been struggling with schizophrenia her entire life. It affects her high school life, day to day routine and relationship with her loving parents (Katherine Heigl & Harry Connick Jr) who do everything they can to help her. She wants to get better but feels frustrated by the fact that the meds she takes dull her creative edge, as she’s an enormously talented painter. Things get impossibly complicated when she meets and makes friends with a boy (Israel Broussard) from out of town who she isn’t even sure is real and starts to suspect her neighbour/high school teacher (Eugenie Bondurant) of kidnapping and holding a little girl captive in her house. Are all these things realities of her life or densely spun facets of her own delusional mind spilling out into her outward mental state? The film could have easily gone for cheap thrills, cloying teen romance and a sanitized, glossed over depiction of schizophrenia but there’s a brutal honesty and careful balancing act between all these elements that feels genuine. Iseman is raw and potent, finding the desperate notes, the inevitable clarity and the instances where Rain skirts the dangerous line of hopelessness and losing her mind forever. Heigl and Connick Jr are excellent as the parents, finding all the right beats individually and as a unit. Director Landon seamlessly weaves the thriller aspects into the psychological themes for a story that has twists that feel earned, performances that feel human, a third act that will toss your nerves into a bundle and some visually striking, almost fairytale-like cinematography that gets downright dreamy to illustrate Rain’s kaleidoscopic mental state and draw you into her journey. Great film, and important because it goes a long way in educating and erasing stigmas around schizophrenia.
Be Afraid is a big, bold title for a horror film and despite it being a relatively low budget effort that skirts the boundaries of outright B grade quality, there were a few moments that did come very close to being truly, impressively scary. The story sees the residents of a sleepy rural county in Pennsylvania preyed upon by some sort of either supernatural or extraterrestrial beings that dwell in a cave deep in the woods. The county doctor (Brian Krause, Charmed, Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers) does his best to uncover what’s going on while dealing with family issues, an uncooperative sheriff (Louis Herthum), ghosts from the past and the fact that both his young son and he himself are having terrifying nocturnal visions of these strange humanoid horrors walking right into their bedrooms and standing over them. Now, the film never outright tells you what these things are but the ringleader of them appears to wear a top hat which in my book rules out aliens and feels more akin to something earthly, elemental and folk-horror oriented but it’s really anyones guess. The film almost has a Signs vibe, what with all the rural farms and quaint, small town feel pervaded upon by threatening figures on the edge of the landscape. There are nice forest shots and they seem to have filmed this in Fall, so the seasonal vibes are there as well. I can’t quite call it a great film because it just feels like a DTV outing half the time, but on those terms it’s certainly not a bad one at all, one that genuinely tries to do something cool with capable actors, tangible atmosphere and discernible style to it. Originally titled “Within The Dark”, it can be found streaming on Prime at least here in Canada anyways, and is a nice lazy afternoon watch for spooky season.
David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (such beautifully deliberate typos) blends the director’s trademark kinky, drippy body horror with a tactile, analog virtual reality aesthetic that is one of his most fun, freaky and mind warping SciFi horror outings I’ve seen. Jennifer Jason Leigh is an edgy, uncompromising, fearless actress who has made it her personal mission to work with some of the wildest, weirdest filmmakers out there including Tarantino, Paul Verhoeven, The Coens, The Safdies, Charlie Kaufman, Brad Anderson and of course David Lynch. Her collaboration with Cronenberg provides us with fascinating protagonist Allegra Keller, a futuristic video game designer who Leigh imbues with a wistful, detached-from-reality aura, a girl who got lost in the virtual world and is only half present in any given scene. Allegra is the target of corporate assassins out to plunder her tech, so she’s on the run with a low level marketing schmuck (Jude Law) from her firm, hiding out in a backwoods motel. Her only choice is to play her own game with this underling in order to find out if it’s damaged or not, and here the film veers into unsteady narrative territory as reality bends and all sense of linear cohesion is thrown to the wind for some truly trippy mind-games. They encounter other players personified by a rogues gallery of Cronenberg regulars like Sarah Polley, Ian Holm, Callum Keith Rennie, Don Mckellar, Christopher Eccleston and Willem Dafoe as a nasty, treacherous gas station attendant whose name is literally… Gas. The film is a sort of paranoid, uneasy game of virtual Russian roulette to see who’s who, who’s not who they say they are, what’s real, what’s not and who is going to end up dead or insane from playing this very dangerous game for too long, and goddamn is it ever fun until it’s last, ruthless, kick in the nuts final beat before the credits. Leigh is wonderful and adds a deliriously sexual connotation to the already very sexual, body penetrating nature of the tech used for gameplay, she puts her sly, playful yet shady smile to great effect and it’s one of the best actor/director collabs with Conenberg I’ve seen since Jeff Goldblum for The Fly. The special effects are excellent too, all kinds of gorgeously grotesque organ mimicking tubes, fleshy portals and genitalia reminiscent weaponry that will have all the parents in the audience getting uncomfortable. It’s a great picture, the mix of virtual paranoia, worlds within games within worlds and freaky, glistening practical viscera is a delicious flavour and one of my favourite cinematic recipes yet from our Canadian master of the macabre. Great film.
Night Of The Demons is a ton of cheesy 80’s fun, maybe a bit more loopy and silly than I was expecting it to be at times but still a blast of hectic screeching monsters and gooey practical effects. It’s story is so simplistic and it’s characters such overblown archetypes of their time it almost feels like the “movie within a movie” that characters in an 80’s horror that took themselves a bit more seriously would be watching at some point, for meta flair. Various dudes, chicks, jocks, nerds and one jersey boy sounding guy all head to a spooky abandoned house to party for the night where, naturally, they fall prey to unseen spirits that possess their bodies (mainly the girls) and stir up one noisy, gory night from hell. The special effects, demon transformations and evil performances from possessed cast members are all dialed up, theatrical and super super hyperactive, which at worst can be aggravating and at best makes for a pleasantly shrill Evil Dead vibe. There’s one sequence that’s a real charmer where two girls rob a convenience store blind, one of them hiking up her dress to nonchalantly flash the clerks some panty, the other sneakily loading up a bag with their booze, snacks and smokes for the night. Now *thats* how you party prep, folks. It’s a good time, and like I said it got a bit mindless in the noise and characterization department, but it’s still a solidly bonkers 80’s horror effort.
There’s one moment in The Wolf Of Snow Hollow where a character suggests that everyone in the room pause for a moment of silence and it made me chuckle because I didn’t believe anyone in that room, let alone any character in this film, to be capable of a moment of silence, since most of them spend their scenes yelling, shouting, arguing and making noise at a thoroughly exhausting, mile-a-minute pace. Writer director star Jim Cummings has attempted to make an oblong Christmas themed werewolf comedy fused together with a hectic, dysfunctional family drama and the result, although competently made, is a bit unwieldy and all over the place for me. In a snowy Utah mountain town that could almost be called sleepy if everyone weren’t so over caffeinated, some sort of huge wolf like beast has been attacking people and leaving a trail of corpses. It falls on the impossibly stressed out county sheriff (Cummings) who has large boots to fill as he prepares to take over the job permanently from his semi-retired father (the late great Robert Forster in his final film appearance). He’s also navigating a shaky relationship with his ex wife and daughter, plus regular AA meetings, some truly incompetent deputies and a coroner who is borderline insubordinate in the investigation. There’s just too much going on and it started to give my brain the zoomies to be honest. The werewolf is cool enough, it’s attacks vicious and well staged but the final resolution and explanation for the creature felt a tad… underwhelming. It’s definitely worth a look to see Forster on his game one last time, and there are some genuinely hilarious moments written, acted and directed by triple threat Cummings, who no doubt has talent. I just feel like a snowy werewolf family comedy set around Christmas is such a goldmine of a genre concept, this should have been an instant classic and for me, felt only alright.