Archive for the Reviews Category

The Barrier of Nostalgia: Thoughts on IT

Posted in Dark Musings, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2017 by smuckyproductions

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[light spoilers ahead]

This weekend ushered in the latest horror sensation: a fairly large-budgeted adaptation of Stephen King’s IT. The new version is flashy, stylish, pretty well-acted, and scary in moments. It’s remarkable that a studio film was able to follow Stephen King’s brutal, surreal and melodramatic book so closely. The changes made were, mostly, for the better. But through the entire viewing experience, I felt distanced. This was a coming-of-age narrative that I could only care about from afar, because it’s very far from mine – mainly because it’s about a group of straight white boys who never acknowledge that their struggles are far lighter than those of Bev and Mike, the only kids who don’t fit that mold.

I’m simply tired of hearing the story of these heteronormative characters rising above their bullies and fears, as if those things are actual oppressors rather than just obstacles. Pennywise represents human fear, but all of its incarnations are loud, digitized monsters. The film favors these shiny set pieces and neglects to develop what make King’s book so intoxicating – the actual monsters in town. Bev’s dad goes from a terrifying but human abuser to a one-note creep with as much nuance as Eddie’s leper; and Bill’s grieving parents, so heartbreakingly neglectful in the book, are reduced to a single yelling stereotype. While Bill Skarsgard is suitably frightening, the CGI always takes precedence over his performance; it’s hard to tell what’s him and what isn’t.

Those criticisms are petty and easily dismissed by taste, but my issues with the film go deeper. When people talk about the heart, it’s always in context of the Loser’s Club. And most of the screen time is granted to Bill, Richie and Eddie. The roles are performed well, but their stories simply don’t feel as honest or emotional to me as Mike and Bev’s. The former must fight for his life, not just his dignity, against the town bullies; while Bev, a 13-year-old girl who has survived apparent sexual abuse from her dad, is constantly ogled by her male counterparts (and the camera). There’s something off about that, right? Bev is performed with intensity and commitment by Sophia Lillis, and given a fair number of scenes to herself, but she is still defined by her sexuality and gender. Meanwhile, Mike – played by Chosen Jacobs – is simply a side character whose terror of white supremacy is never mentioned by his friends.

I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy the film on a superficial level. IT is a blast. It’s never dull, the atmosphere is intoxicating, some (but far from all) of the scares are supremely effective. And therein lies another one of my issues. With stories like this and Stranger Things, which is basically IT-lite with a splat of Firestarter, it appears that issues like racism and sexism are “too serious” to be discussed outright. As if oppressed people can’t also tell stories that are fun as well as scary. Watching these films and television shows, it’s hard not to be entertained. I love a good, clever, suspenseful story. But when the characters are always cut from this same cloth – societally accepted, even if they aren’t popular – I (and other people like me, I’ve confirmed) begin to feel left out, even from these stories that claim to be about people who don’t fit in.

I guess it must be nostalgia, in part, that makes these stories so endearing. Nostalgia for “simpler times,” decades in the past; when these stories were told without a second thought. And what were those times like for people of color, queer people, women? That is the barrier of nostalgia: it looks back fondly on times that were outright dangerous for many people in our society. Telling stories that appear to celebrate this period become alienating for anyone besides those who thrived in them. And for those of us who can’t connect, saying so feels a little ostracizing. IT and Stranger Things are defended like white silk – one dirty mark and the whole thing is ruined. Why is that? Why can’t horror fans voice their dissenting opinions without being told they’re wrong, that they aren’t a part of this insider’s club?

Thing is, I’ve seen many horror films that eschew this pattern. Raw, The Witch, It Follows, Trash Fire, Get Out, Dearest Sister, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, XX, The Wailing, and The Invitation – just to name a few – all focus on narratives that don’t revolve around straight white boys. And some of them are extremely fun. What if these filmmakers had been granted the resources that IT received? What exciting, entertaining and nostalgic stories could they tell, that don’t focus on a heteronormative white man’s experience?

It’s not to say that these stories aren’t valid, but we’re heard them endless times, and they still seem to dominate the field. They’re the fan favorites because they’re easy, wrapped up neat and tidy; they don’t need to recognize that people still live in actual fear because their characters have overcome their villains. I guess ease is nice. And for the most part, I do fit into that demographic – white kid who was bullied in the suburbs. I’m not trying to claim that I don’t benefit from that privilige. But I had to come to terms with a part of my life that these characters will never have to worry about – my sexuality, which was hell to accept for myself, even worse to have to explain to people – and I don’t see that story being told very often. My friends and colleagues, women and people of color, likewise see their narratives dismissed. When will we get to tell our fun, exciting and honest stories?

I don’t like to think about the true answer to this question. These nostalgic voices still appear to the valued above all others in our culture. Speaking out against these voices seems to be taboo – the defenders of IT have come out in full force this weekend, quite angrily in some cases, against even the smallest criticism. I feel like I’m wrong in voicing my opinion. It saddens me to like an outsider even in a community of outsiders – horror fans. But the fact remains: I couldn’t just enjoy IT because I am tired of the narrative it perpetuates. I am tired of genre cinema valuing those voices over equally valid, but perhaps less tidy ones. It’s time to let someone else make the next big horror film, with a budget and cultural significance equal to IT. And yet, it still feels like that time is far, far away.

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Review: THE LOVE WITCH

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 11, 2016 by smuckyproductions

(This is one film to watch post-election, because of its empowerment, brilliance and social intelligence.)

Stylistic homage in horror is nothing new in 2016. So many of the greatest genre offerings in the past few years have been throwbacks to past decades, usually the 70s or the 80s. It’s an interesting reaction to the “horror is dead” statement that keeps throwing itself around – filmmakers respond to this by returning to their roots, the eras during which so many horror classics were produced. Few of these films go beyond homage, though, to comment on the eras that they are meant to inhabit. THE LOVE WITCH is one such film.

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Anna Biller’s sophomore feature is, like her debut VIVA, created in the style of 60s and 70s sexploitation cinema.She achieves this homage with an incredible attention to detail – everything from the film grain and the harsh lighting to the vivid production design and celestial soundtrack fits the era impossibly well. Had I been told I was watching a 60s film, I wouldn’t have questioned it (aside from a few important moments that I can’t reveal here).

This world exists around the titular witch, Elaine, who joins a Wiccan cult and uses her practices for one thing: seducing men. Hence, her name. But Elaine runs into some trouble when her love spells backfire. Soon, the locals become wary and a handsome police officer begins following her trail. Will Elaine finally find love, or will she fall victim to her own desires?

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The plot, like the film’s aesthetic and atmosphere, is pure exploitation. Its occult elements and sexually ‘liberated’ characters provide plenty of excuses for trippy visuals and copious sex scenes. Biller’s script is full of cheesy one-liners and flirtations straight out of a dating how-to; but it’s aware of itself enough that the audience can laugh without mocking the film. These moments constructed to be funny, but they aren’t farcical – Biller takes her world seriously, too. That’s where the brilliance comes in.

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What begins as an exercise in homage evolves into a political exploration of themes found throughout 60s and 70s cinema – where does sex-positivity end and delusion begin? Had this film been directed by a man, perhaps these questions would not be asked. That is why Biller’s scrutinizing voice is essential to the film’s success. Early on, as Elaine explains what men want in a woman (a maternal figure who satisfies sexually, more or less), her friend shuts her down – how can she say such demeaning things? Of course, at first, Elaine seems an expert in seduction. Until people start ending up dead.

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This is where Biller’s genius shows through. She isn’t content to perpetuate the sexualization of her predecessors – she displays that, while these films are attractive, they also contain some demoralizing ideas. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that Elaine’s story is not all bright colors and sex scenes. THE LOVE WITCH earns its place in the horror genre through its dissection, and destruction, of the demeaning elements.

Apart from being a lush and charming homage, Anna Biller’s THE LOVE WITCH manages to be a rich commentary. It exists in two eras, eventually bringing them together until the lines blur – have things really changed? For cinephiles and social psychologists alike, this is a hefty, essential film. It will take you under its spell, and won’t let you leave without a little bloodletting.

Film Review: THE INVITATION

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2016 by smuckyproductions

There is a fine line between the thriller and horror genres, which film fans have been debating for decades. My personal definition has to do with mathematics – a thriller will follow a clear path of reason and logic, no matter how muddled it gets; while horror is the destruction of logic. Every once in a while, a film will come along that inhabits both genres ingeniously. One such film is Karyn Kusama’s THE INVITATION.

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Kusama is perhaps best-known for her direction of “Jennifer’s Body,” a film people love to hate. This latest effort displays all of the talent that might have been lost with Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried. “The Invitation” has a deliciously simple setup: a group of friends are reunited for a dinner party by a woman they haven’t seen in two years. Our main character used to be married to this woman, before an unspoken tragedy drove them apart. As the dinner progresses he notices strange things, subtle things, that point to a drastic change – and sinister intentions – in his host.

Beginning with a bang as our character has to mercy-kill a coyote, this thriller does not let its audience breathe. Kusama directs her actors – including the incredible John Carroll Lynch – through unbearably tense scenes that escalate from amusing to bizarre. She infuses the film with a surreal style that jumps back in time, makes us doubt, especially as the main character begins to suspect his guests of malevolent deeds. And she manages to keep the secret for most of the running time.

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This film follows the same rule of tension-building that we saw in “Goodnight Mommy” last year, and was outlined by Alfred Hitchcock. Place a bomb under the table, allow it to tick for five minutes, but don’t let it go off. This keeps the audience aware of danger but does not give them the satisfaction of seeing it play out. There are no jump-scares, no sudden outbursts; everyone is well-behaved and accepting, somehow, of the strange goings-ons. This also makes the film feel horribly authentic. In reality, that is how people would react. In fiction it becomes agonizing to watch – in the best way possible.

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We spend our time in a decadent house, with a crew of intelligent yuppies, ranging in race and orientation – a refreshing thing to see when much of film is so white-washed. They are normal people encountering abnormal things. The brand of weirdness that we see is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson, who knows better than anyone how to set up an average domestic scene and infuse it with uncanny tension. Nothing overt happens – no dead bodies in the closet, Satanic symbols in the bathroom – but we feel in danger regardless. Kusama is cruel but brilliant for keeping us in suspense until the last possible moment. The final revelation is not original, but it feels earned. I will say no more than that.

In the end, the film winds up feeling human in the most heartbreaking way. What struck me so deeply was this sense of emotional reality – while I was frightened and thrilled, I also felt a sense of tragedy. So many genre films forgo that sensibility in favor of a hard-boiled and ‘brutal’ exoskeleton – but what is more brutal than human sadness? Kusama understands this, and uses its effect to the fullest extent.

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While it may too slow for some viewers, and the ‘twist’ ending might not shock you like you want, “The Invitation” is undeniably a massive display of talent. It is horrific in the most human way. I am thrilled that Kusama could show her chops in this manner, and cannot wait to see what she does next. (Her upcoming project is a segment in a female-directed horror anthology.) To see the folly, the brutality, and the tragedy of normal behavior, see this film – but be warned.

Review: THE WITCH

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 20, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?

Yesterday saw the nationwide release of the most anticipated horror movie of 2016. After massive buzz from Sundance and a series of incredible trailers from A24, I was insanely excited to witness what was being called a soul-shaking experience. For once, the reviews were pretty spot on. THE WITCH is like nothing else that I’ve seen in recent years.

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It’s a plot that, in other hands, could have been cheap and silly – a Puritan family is plagued by a baby-stealing, boy-seducing, and mind-warping witch. But under Robert Eggers’s direction, already infamous for its extreme attention to detail, that storyline becomes the stuff of nightmares.

Let’s state the obvious: the production design and authenticity of the world is incredible. The cinematography is stark and sparing. This allows the film to take on a realistic texture that is rarely seen in horror. But the realism doesn’t stop at the surface. Eggers pays even more attention to the minds of his characters, drawing out their thoughts and emotions so viscerally, so realistically, that the audience can’t help but empathize. You won’t want to feel what they feel, though. That’s the genius of the film – you have no choice.

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With this film, we finally get to see what it would have looked like if Bergman directed a Hammer movie. (“Hour of the Wolf” is a different type of horror.) By combining the psychological breakdown of the characters alongside some wickedly visceral images, Eggers crafts a comprehensive assault on the audience’s brain. This recipe is reserved for only the best genre offerings – most focus solely on the mind or the monster. Eggers brings us both, and each is ingenious on its own, but together they create something brutal and traumatizing.

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The witch herself is frightening, but what she does to the minds of her victims is even more so. Mainly because it feels so real – it’s what you would do, too. By the end it seems like we’re spying on someone’s private tragedy, a thing we should not see, but cannot look away from. Eggers is merciless with his story. And that makes it all the better. His vision is also refreshingly free of influences – so many of today’s horror films mimic the style of another decade – and takes on a transgressively Gothic tone, a truly demented fairy tale.

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It must also be said that much of the film’s power comes from the music – a perverse soundtrack of howling strings, clacking wood and hideous chanting. The marriage of these sounds with the film’s visuals is overwhelmingly horrific.

This film also excites me because of its unexpected wide release. Not only that, but it’s exceeding expectations at the box office. People are flocking to see this film. If this trend continues, perhaps it will open the doors for more horror in this vein. We’re witnessing the possible birth of a wide-spread genre renaissance. In the meantime, it’s enough to enjoy this brilliant nightmare on its own. Go live deliciously and experience its darkness.

Family-Friendly Horror in GRAVITY FALLS

Posted in Dark Musings, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Last night witnessed the finale of television’s greatest modern kid’s show, GRAVITY FALLS. Had someone pitched this to me and said “it’ll be a massive hit for Disney,” I would have laughed at them. How can a family-friendly Twin Peaks with hints of X Files and Lovecraft become a hit? As awesome as that sounds, today’s market for kids has become so PC and watered down that we would never expect Disney to greenlight such a dark premise. And yet, here we are.

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One of the contributing factors to this show’s success was its older audience. Millennials, people in their twenties, latched onto Gravity Falls and made it their own. In addition to attracting the Disney demographic, its intelligence and darkness widened the audience ingeniously. I think that’s a great sign.

I fell in love with this show because it was clear that Alex Hirsch loved the same things I did. He offered a part to David Lynch, references Lovecraft and John Carpenter all the time, and was not afraid to make things freaky. I’ll never forget the Summerween Trickster or Bill Cipher’s horrible laugh. Seriously, how did those things get into a kid’s show? Didn’t it traumatize people? Yes, it probably did – but I forget that I had my own traumatic content as a kid, too. And I loved it.

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Kids are far more resilient than we tend to believe. My generation grew up with safe  bubblegum shows too, but we also had Tim Burton, Scooby Doo, Snow White, Harry Potter and much more – all brands targeted at children, but featuring some seriously messed up shit. And I’m pretty sure we turned out fine. Being frightened in this controlled way taught us about darkness, and also taught us how to overcome it. Sure, we were still protected by a TV screen, but we understood what fear meant. That’s vital.

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Gravity Falls finds its boldness in its willingness to frighten, to thrill, and to break hearts. The monsters in this show are not easily defeated – the lead villain manipulates people’s minds and reveals their darkest desires, for God’s sake. Even I, a horror film maniac, got chills from some of these episodes. Carpenter’s The Thing makes an appearance, ghosts turn people into trees, and a dimension of nightmares opens to wreak havoc on a town that we’ve come to love.

And through this, Hirsch builds a story about growing up, familial bonds, and the prevailing strength of friendship. He couldn’t tug at our heartstrings so painfully without raising the stakes. So, against the normal child-safe mold, the Falls finale becomes a life-or-death fight for humanity. The plot structure is brilliant and the unfolding is shockingly terrifying. Without giving away the denouement, though, I’ll say this – Hirsch does not play it safe. He ends his show with tenderness, but also tough truth. And through that realism, the viewers feel what it means to grow, to change, and to celebrate those things. It’s not hackneyed or cheap – Hirsch earns these themes.MABEL, DIPPER

I could ramble on for several posts, but I’ll leave this one here. I hope that the success of Gravity Falls allows children’s media to explore the dark, the serious, and the scary – because it is important to encounter those emotions. Let this usher in an era of smarter and deeper content. Kudos to you, Alex Hirsch, for giving us this amazing series.

Film Review: SOUTHBOUND

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 11, 2016 by smuckyproductions

 

Anthology films are notoriously difficult. Balancing the tone, theme, characters, and transitions can overwhelm any director, let alone four at once. When done well, though, these works are brilliantly entertaining – especially in horror. We’re lucky to have another classic in 2016. Take a ride to Hell in this year’s SOUTHBOUND.

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Fresh from Toronto’s Midnight Madness section and helmed by four different directors (most veterans from 2012’s VHS), this collection of stories is all set on a mysterious road deep in the Southwest. Each of the tales revolves around this strange netherworld, and their characters all find themselves trapped there – two men on the run from wraiths, a rock band who ask for help from the wrong family, a man who has to save a woman’s life in an abandoned hospital, a crazed man searching for his lost sister. These unwitting souls confront all manner of demons, monsters and madness, just off the map.

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The world of this film is astoundingly creepy and fun. It’s a deformed lovechild of Rod Serling, John Carpenter, and perhaps a dash of Flannery O’Connor – brewed in a pot of metaphysical, weird-fiction terror. “Carnival of Souls” plays on several screens throughout the stories, which gives a hint of the rules in this world – there are none. It’s unapologetically weird, and it oozes uncomfortable dread, something most horror films can’t claim. The filmmakers know how to make the viewer feel just a little bit off. So you’re scared before the mayhem even begins.

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It helps, too, that each of the stories features a character who we care about (at least, I did). The writers create authentic humans with flaws and quirks, and they develop them with rapid skill. Cliches are also hard to find. That is part of the weirdness – whatever a ‘normal’ film would do, this one blatantly swerves around, or does with such bravado that it’s shocking anyway. Horror cinema rarely sees such a unique, insane universe.

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I am not surprised to find out that the folks at Dark Sky Films, who brought us modern classics like “The House of the Devil” and “We Are Still Here,” are involved in this release. Larry Fessenden himself voices a sinister radio host who introduces each segment a la Mr. Serling. Like many of their offerings, this one feels retro, but it’s also rooted in our modern world, cleverly using cell phones (that actually work) and avoiding gender stereotypes. The characters are contemporary, but the nightmare is an amalgamation of 70s strangeness, 50s music and 40s wardrobe. It fits into the Dark Sky canon beautifully – and we can only hope that company will continue to make such brilliant genre pieces.

Though it is a limited release, if you can’t find it in a theater, get to it through the Internet – it’s a must-see for fans of classic horror from any decade. It’s bizarre, funny, ultra-bloody, and legitimately frightening. Turn on the ignition and drive down this dark road.

Sundance Review: THE GREASY STRANGLER

Posted in Films That Haunt Me, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 2, 2016 by smuckyproductions

Sitting in the Yarrow Theater at 9 pm on January 23rd was a special experience. And by special I mean disgusting, bewildering, stupefying and inanely hilarious. It isn’t often that you witness the birth of the next cult phenomenon. In the midst of oily grapefruits, potatoes, hootie-tootie-disco-cuties and a vat of costuming grease, those of us in Park City can say we did just that. This film is THE GREASY STRANGLER.

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Looking back on it, I’m shocked to remember that there is a very coherent plot. A father and son duo, living together after the death of their wife/mother, begin a personal war when they fall in love with the same woman. But there is an even more dangerous scheme afoot – a murderer is stalking the streets, someone covered in grease and growling like a post-modern Wolfman. Also like the Wolfman, his kill of choice is a good, old-fashioned strangle. (The title is very literal.)

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Another surprise – the film is gorgeously crafted. The production design and lighting are vibrant and ultra-professional, lending it the aesthetic of a true Hollywood rom-com. That look only makes the bizarre aspects more delirious. From the opening, we are assaulted by totally insane images and conversations – greasy coffee, oozing sausages, men in pink short shorts, and endless Dada arguments about free drinks and potatoes. (Also, BULLSHIT ARTIST.) And don’t forget the prosthetic penises. Yes, I said it, prosthetic penises.

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It’s a hymnal to absurdist humor and the grotesque (in the classic sense of the word, which means ugly to a hilarious extreme). While there is a clear plot, which is more than can be said about many ‘normal’ films, there is nothing clear in the way it pans out. The film is utterly baffling in the most exhilarating way – an amalgamation of cartoonish comedy and endless goop that all serves to create a world we’ve never seen before. And I truly haven’t seen anything like this in film. Comparisons to John Waters can be made, but this film is so surreal, almost animated, that it creates its own brand of weird.

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This originality is only part of the reason I call it the next cult hit. The charm of this film hard to explain to someone who wasn’t in the theater. Listening to the audience erupt in almost-constant confused laughter, usually because the images on screen were just so out there, was undeniably special. Like “Rocky Horror” and “The Room,” I think this film is destined for midnight greatness. Its wacky quotability and immersive boldness will give it eternal life.

When viewing this repugnant and beautiful piece of work, leave all conception of film at the door. This is an experience like no other. And it’s worth it. Come mingle in the mire, the disco, and the colorful chaos that is THE GREASY STRANGLER.