Us (2019)

MARCH 25, 2019


One of my favorite (for lack of a better word) things to do when watching movies is to scan the characters' bookshelves/ entertainment centers to see what movies/books/games/etc they own, usually for my own amusement and also to test my "skill" at recognizing something from a blurry spine. However, in Jordan Peele's Us, this habit is actually rewarded - the five VHS films that are seen on the shelf next to a television in the film's opening scene are all referenced later in one way or another, and help unpack some of the clues that this puzzling film offers about its ambitious (borderline insane) concept. It's a film that I felt I needed to see twice before writing this review (I first saw it last week at an advanced screening), partly because I had some issues with its third act reveals that I thought might work better a second time, and partly to double check that my own theories as to what Peele was *really talking about* weren't contradicted by information I was conveniently forgetting (i.e. what 90% of fan theories end up being).

But also partly just to enjoy the film on its surface level, which is a perfectly fine way to watch the movie - it's not like everyone who loves Dawn of the Dead has picked up on its satire, to name one example. If you've seen the trailer you know the concept: a normal family of four, led by Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) and Gabe (Winston Duke) finds themselves menaced by mirror images of themselves, and the first 80ish minutes are essentially a freakier version of a home invasion movie as a result. There's a lengthy chunk in the middle where it's easy to forget that this movie has any real ideas and just enjoy the cat and mouse stuff, with clones substituting for the usual people in masks or whatever. Our heroes don't stay in the home for as long as you'd expect from a traditional entry in the sub-genre, but it still offers the same kind of thrills. There's a bit where the clone of the daughter chases her to a car and then seemingly disappears, leaving our hero daughter to wonder if she's gotten on the car's roof or gone under it - that's just a straight up suspense setpiece, no politics or message required.

However, eventually these sort of beats are discarded in favor of explaining where the clones came from, what they want (sort of), and why Red (Adelaide's double, who she first encountered as a child and was traumatized as a result) seems to be the only one that can talk. And that, my friends, is where we get into heavy spoiler territory, so after I say "This movie is really good if somewhat messy in spots" for those who came here to see if it got my seal of approval, you need to close this tab right now if you haven't seen it yet.

Still with me? OK, so Peele could have just let the clones do their thing for an appropriate horror movie runtime, have our family (or just SOMEONE) survive and maybe give us a grim ending with the reveal that they weren't the only ones being menaced by duplicates, without ever explaining where they came from. It'd frustrate some, of course, but it'd follow suit with horror classics (including Peele's beloved Night of the Living Dead) to not explain why it was happening and focus more on who will survive it, letting audiences draw their own conclusions. Instead, Red delivers not one but two lengthy monologues that lay most of it out, plus there's a Saw-like "OK here's all those things that happened earlier, quickly flashing by now that you have new context" montage for good measure. Red's first info dump is vague enough to still fit into a "it just IS" kind of explanation since it focuses more on her own personal motivations, but the second (much longer) one inches into "Someone's about to draw a diagram on a chalkboard" areas of making sure the audience is completely brought up to speed.

(In fact there is a chalkboard behind her, but she doesn't use it in the scene, so I guess we dodged a bullet there.)

It's not that the explanation itself is bad - on the contrary, it's kind of fascinating, and I'd happily watch another movie (even - gasp - a prequel) that explored it even more. The problem is, like The Purge (also from Jason Blum, notably), the concept is so good that it's natural to ask questions about the logistics, and the way the information is presented invites itself to these questions. I won't spoil everything, but I'll say that the clone people come from underground subway tunnels and such and apparently have a Dharma Corporation-like entity making sure they are supplied with water (food is explained via rabbits, eaten raw) and materials to make clothing (and also lots of golden scissors, for some reason). If we only ever saw the clones wearing red jumpsuits, no one would think "where did they get their clothes?" but instead we see them dressed in generic normal clothing and then actually make their jumpsuits - and it's very difficult to see this and not start wondering how that worked. Did they have enough red material to make 320 million suits? Why? The concept is huge, but it feels like Peele realized if he answered one question about the nitty-gritty he'd have to answer all of them, so he had to just ask us to go with it, but perhaps he should have been scaling back what he showed us so we never thought to ask.

One benefit to this is that you are free to come up with your own theories as to what he's really getting at, as there's not a lot of hard evidence that can contradict it. One thing that keeps popping up is "Hands Across America", a charity stunt that was held in 1986 where people would hold hands in a line (ideally from one end of the country to the other) while raising awareness/money for hunger. It didn't really pan out; they didn't make all that much money and more than half of what they did went to paying for the operating costs. This concept - for spoiler-y reasons I won't divulge - speaks to the clone folk, and stage two of their uprising (stage one being "kill our others") appears to be recreating it, only more successfully. Now, while the film isn't as overtly racially motivated as Get Out, this interpretation (and others that I've spoken to) about these people, with their affinity for red clothing and mission to form a wall, certainly recalls some unfortunate racial biases - but that whole idea might just be my own reading and not what Peele intended at all.

And there's a trickle down effect to this that can drive you batty if your mind is engineered to decode/analyze what you're seeing, because you're not sure where it ends. The VHS tapes are obviously very carefully chosen (otherwise they'd just be fellow Universal movies), as is the "I got five on it" song that the family sings along to (it's about sharing something that traditionally is barely enough for one, like a dimebag, or your time on earth). But where does it stop? The son wears a Jaws shirt throughout the movie - is Peele drawing a parallel between the shark and the clones, because they're both coming to the surface because they need to survive but seen as monsters to the people above? Or does he just like Jaws and could save a couple bucks on licensing if a character wore a shirt from a Universal movie? This sort of thing can be fun (see: The Shining documentary Room 237), but it can also be distracting, as you start looking around for clues and end up missing the larger point of a scene. And since some information is indeed conveyed in a subtle manner (Adelaide's father walked out on the family shortly after her incident, but that's never spelled out - we just have to notice that he's not in any of the pictures that we see of her growing up), it's hard to know when you're allowed to just get caught in the moment of a scene or if you still need to have your thinking cap on.

Of course, he has something he wants to say, and is using a horror film to make that point because he's good like that. Naturally, your reading of these elements will play a big part on how you look at the film as a whole, so on one hand it's good that he confined the bulk of it for the film's final 20-25 minutes, so you could at least enjoy the ride until then. On the other, it gives the film a strange pacing, as it almost literally stops dead to have someone explain everything that's going on, at a point where things should be at their most exciting. And it's stuff I'm not sure we needed explained anyway, so it'd be like if the original Halloween carried on as normal and then Dr Wynn came back and explained all the cult stuff from H6 right then and there. In interviews, Peele has gone out of his way to combat the "it's a psychological thriller" kind of shit by insisting that it's a horror movie, but the lack of tension in its final reel is odd to say the least. The crux of the finale involves Adelaide trying to rescue her son from Red (who has taken him back to the tunnels), but he's practically forgotten once Adelaide gets down there and confronts her doppelgänger - he's not in any perceivable danger, and even if he was, most audience members would probably be thinking about the implications of what they just learned instead of getting worked up in the present threat.

That said, Peele's horror cred is never in doubt throughout the rest of the film; a clever in-joke early on reminds us that he knows his shit ("They're filming a movie by the carousel," says Adelaide's mother in a 1986 flashback set in Santa Cruz - you get it, Michael?) and while one of the two horror films in that aforementioned VHS collection is a classic everyone knows, the other is more obscure and will excite only Peele's fellow Fangoria readers. But more importantly, he uses horror cliches smartly - in particular an early bit where Gabe and Adelaide chide their daughter for wanting to quit the track team because she says it's pointless. This is a standard bit of foreshadowing shorthand; they want to establish that this character can run fast because later on they'll be required to do that for plot purposes, and that is indeed what happens. BUT, the real point to it is to lay out another example of how the "above" people are wasting the life that has been denied to the clones in the tunnels, hammered home when the clone daughter has to chase the real one and is clearly relishing the ability to use her skill, even letting the real one get a bit of a head start so that she can give herself more of a challenge. That's the sort of thing that Peele really excels at, and why the genre is lucky to have him.

But it's his intelligence and skill that also makes the film somewhat frustrating, because it's so close to being an all-timer. I don't know if he chose to convey as much info as he did (and WHEN he did) or if a producer/test screening dictated he do so, but either way it lacks the finesse that earned him an Oscar last time. An opening text crawl also seems to exist only to clarify something people might wonder about, and it too is ill-timed, as it foreshadows information that seems like it should be a total surprise when introduced ninety minutes later (it reminded me a bit of the theatrical cut of Dark City explaining who the strangers were right off the bat). We also have to take a large leap of faith that Adelaide has seemingly never realized that their summer home is so close to the beach where she had her childhood trauma, which is another thing that Peele could have easily avoided by removing the references to having been there before in the first place.

However, even with its minor missteps, it's another exciting film from a one-of-a-kind modern filmmaker, one I'll enjoy revisiting down the road to pick up on more little details and see how my own continued privileged existence has me interpreting certain things. Peele even said he'd be open to going back to this world (more optimistic than he sounded when asked about a Get Out sequel), so it's possible there are things we're not meant to fully comprehend yet but will later. If that doesn't happen, then what we got is intriguing and ambitious, and overall worthy of its praise (and box office fortunes) despite its few flaws. Since I could say the same about the original Twilight Zone, we can consider this movie a $20m advertisement for his upcoming revival, and CBS should send Universal a gift basket for all the extra subscriptions they'll be selling as a result.

What say you?


FTP: The Return of the Vampire (1943)

MARCH 17, 2019


When Scream Factory announced they were releasing The Return of the Vampire, I didn't think much of it, because I thought I saw it already and didn't love it all that much. Turns out I was thinking of Mark of the Vampire (which also had Bela Lugosi), and had never actually seen this one! He didn't play a vampire as often as you might think (in fact, in Mark he was only pretending to be one), so getting to see him, still more or less in his prime, don the Dracula-ish guise again in a film I didn't even really know existed was a real treat. As a bonus, the movie has a werewolf too, and the makeup isn't far off from Wolfman's, so it's like getting the "Dracula vs Wolfman" movie we were denied since Universal never actually made one.

It's hard not to think about the Universal films when watching it; even discounting the makeup and Bela's appearance, the other characters are cut from the same cloth (professors, doctors, young ladies who catch the eye of Drac- er, "Armand Tesla") and has the same general vibe from start to finish. The biggest difference is the setting; while the Dracula (and Wolfman and Frankenstein) films take place in the 19th century, this one - apart from a lengthy prologue - takes place in the (then) present day of 1943. World War II (specifically bomber planes) even plays a part in the proceedings, something I'm not sure I've seen before in this particular brand of monster movie, which I found kind of fascinating and wish it was a bigger part of the film (perhaps because I'm still disappointed by the underutilized horror element of Overlord). I suspect the low budget forced them to keep it to a minimum, but still - you get to see a vampire vs werewolf climax interrupted by a Nazi bomber!

I also liked how the werewolf was used, as a sort of slave to the vampire. As with Larry Talbot, the cursed guy (Andreas) is a sympathetic monster, forced to do evil deeds by his master but struggling to break free of his control. Naturally, the cops think he's the real villain, and there's only one guy who suspects Lugosi's character of being up to no good, making it engaging even though we in the audience are always a step or two ahead of everyone. There's a real villain to take down and a relatively innocent man to redeem - Wolfman had no real villain and Dracula had no anti-hero, so it really does kind of offer a perfect mix of the two hoscenarios.

Also if you prefer Frankenstein, they got you covered there too - a guy talks to the camera and throws you out of the damn thing.

Since it's 70+ years old everyone involved is dead but that didn't stop Scream Factory from offering a special edition with a whopping three commentaries by film historians, including Troy Howarth who I'm rapidly becoming a fan of (they use him a lot). The others are fine; one focuses more on werewolf movies and the other on Lugosi in general, but if you want something more specific to this film than Howarth's is the one to go with. The transfer is also quite nice; it looks better than some of the genuine Universal ones if you ask me. Here's hoping SF puts out more of the under-represented flicks from the classic era; I know they've been stepping up their game with the 1950s monster movies (I just got Deadly Mantis, in fact) and they'll obviously always be dishing out the 70s/80s fare, but there are a number of interesting gems from the 30s and 40s that fell through the cracks (or are indeed in public domain) that deserve the polishing.

What say you?


Next Of Kin (1982)

MARCH 13, 2019


I've often said the best way to go into any movie (especially a horror one) is to know almost nothing about it, but this proved to be a minor issue for Next of Kin, because all I knew was what the Blu-ray cover showed me - a little girl with a blank expression standing in front of a house, with a tagline that there was something evil in it. So: evil child movie, right? Well after like 25 minutes (which indeed introduced a kid, albeit not the same one on the cover) I started getting suspicious, so I quickly looked at Letterboxd or something and saw "slasher", which perked my excitement back up. Slashers are even more my jam than evil kid movies! But uh... it's not a slasher either.

No, it's kind of a modern "Old Dark House" kind of movie with a little giallo flavor for good measure, without a lot of action and a body count that only really ramps up in the final 15 minutes (and even then it's mostly off-screen stuff). So if I had done any kind of research whatsoever I probably would have known that, and settled in for it accordingly; perhaps it is better to know at least a little about what you're about to commit 90 minutes of your life to see after all! That said, I actually enjoyed the movie once I readjusted my expectations once again, finding myself charmed and lulled by its slow pace and off-kilter presentation.

Our hero is Linda (Jacki Kerin), whose mom (well, mum - it's an Australian movie) has recently passed away and left her in charge of her mansion-like rest home for the elderly, something that she is willing to do but doesn't seem particularly excited about either. But the motions she plans to go through are interrupted when one of the residents is found dead in the bathtub, followed by a series of unusual occurrences like someone leaving all of the faucets/spouts running, or a man seemingly following her while she's on dates with her handsome boyfriend (John Jarratt! I'm always amused on the rare occasions I see him so young). Then she starts going through her mother's diaries and discovers that there might be something fishy going on.

Now, you might read all of that and assume that I'm describing the first twenty minutes or so, but it's actually the other way around - there's only about twenty minutes LEFT after that part. It's kind of a casual mystery, with Linda only rarely showing any kind of fear or trepidation about what is going on. I'm not sure if it's just Kerin's acting choices or the way it was written, but I was rather bemused by how laid back she was about the potential murderer in her midst. Once she finds a bloodied corpse she kinda goes into more traditional theatrics (running, screaming, getting banged up a bit) and the murderer is revealed, but since the character had little part to play in the story it barely even registered who it was at first. It's more a "Oh good, it's NOT John Jarratt!" kind of moment if anything, and of course that only applies to modern viewers who primarily know him as Mick Taylor.

But this kind of went along with the movie's strange atmosphere, giving it a bit of that "late night TV" vibe I enjoy (similar to last month's Possum, another one that wasn't exactly a roller coaster). The location (Overnewton Castle in Melbourne; it now hosts weddings) looks like it was designed specifically for this kind of movie, and while they don't factor into the proceedings all that much the old folks give it a strange energy of its own. There's a bit near the end where Linda is trying to get one of the old guys to safety as the killer makes their way around the halls, and the dude clearly has no idea what's going on but is just doing what he's told (albeit very slowly and, like her in the previous scenes, without any kind of panic whatsoever), so it's kind of funny but also unsettling in a way.

Indeed, there's quite a bit of unusually placed humor all the way until the final moments. My particular favorite example has to be when Linda runs to Jarratt's character for help, finding him nodding off with a beer at a meeting for the local volunteer fire brigade. He's sitting all the way against the wall, so she's trying to get his attention/get him to come with her without disrupting everyone else, failing miserably (and when he does finally wake up he's just as baffled as everyone else). Then she tries to get outside with him to explain and the door is locked - and throughout all of this the poor fire chief is trying to tell all these guys how to do their job. It's very dry, but that's the kind of humor I find myself enjoying more and more these days - less reliant on punchlines and visual gags, and more just the irony of the situation.

So, as you might expect, this is not something you should track down if you're hoping for Australian's answer to the early '80s slasher golden era - the term only gets used because there isn't much else that would work and people love to label things. Giallo comes a bit closer (aided by the somewhat ill-fitting at times but still enjoyable score by Klaus Schulze) since Kerin keeps having childhood flashbacks (it's her younger self on the cover; still unsure why they opted for that, especially since Kerin is quite lovely and would have probably attracted more eyeballs to the poster) and the plot revolves around something a parent did, but if any Argento movie was invoked, it'd be Suspiria, not one of his gialli like Deep Red or Tenebrae. In other words, not for everyone, but will appeal to a particular breed of moviegoer that will shine to things mostly on the strength of how little it "delivers" on what you'd expect it to.

If you're already a fan, fear not - Severin's Blu-ray follows the "rules" exactly, offering a pair of commentaries (one with Jarratt and Kerin; the other with director Tony Williams), some interviews taken from Not Quite Hollywood (which featured the film), a rundown of a deleted action beat from the climax that further explained the fate of its villain (the original footage is lost but they had a few frames to show off), some thoughts from the awesome Kier-La Janisse, etc. They're all worth a look/listen (if you liked the film, of course) but my favorite might have been the trip to the shooting locations as they look today, as I found it kind of fascinating in spots. For example the rusted out car that Linda runs by in one scene is STILL THERE, nearly forty years later, even though the area around it looks fairly different. And it was good to see that aside from some touch up work and signs for their wedding business ("Bridal suites this way" kinda stuff) the house is kind of pretty much the same, with a lot of the exterior decor (a gazebo, a well, etc) intact. Bonus: after already deciding it was my favorite bonus feature, the credits for it popped up and it was produced by my boy Jamie Blanks!

It's easy to see why the film has remained obscure; it's kind of hard to label, the mystery isn't particularly involving, and far too much happens off-screen. But watching late at night, when it's been cold and windy here (we have shit insulation, so if it's windy outside it's pretty much windy inside too), it kinda gave me a bit of a proper fall vibe, which of course is very much welcome when we're almost exactly as far removed from Halloween as possible. It's one or two memorable moments short of being a must-see, but for those who like their horror to be atmospheric and just a bit "off" (example: the heroine spends a large chunk of the film's closing moments making a pyramid out of sugar cubes), I think you'll be happy to discover it.

What say you?


FTP: Feral (2017)

MARCH 5, 2019


One thing I like seeing in zombie movies - but rarely do - is a finite number of undead threatening our heroes. For obvious reasons, most present an insurmountable swarm of the damn things, and end with any real resolution to the threat; I mean, if it worked just fine for Romero (a few times, in fact) there's no reason anyone else should feel the need to bother coming up with a conclusive... er, conclusion. Feral is one of those rare exceptions; there's only one zombie at the start and naturally over the course of the film he creates a few others, but unless I missed something they're all dispatched by the end, case closed!

Then again it's not presented as a usual zombie movie. Don't get me wrong, it most certainly is: the undead creature our heroes encounter bites one of them and they die, only to come back as a similar creature, and others that are bitten eventually turn into them as well. But at first glance it seems to be more of a "monster in the woods" kind of movie, with six campers getting deep enough into the woods where going back to their car instantly won't be easy, and the zombie thing itself looks more like one of the Descent lurkers than any green-faced kinda shambling "walker" you might picture. Bonus, the characters know what zombies are (from movies - they don't BELIEVE in them) which keeps the exposition about what they are/how they work limited to what specifically makes them different than whatever you see on Walking Dead or what have you. I can appreciate that.

If only the rest of the movie was as novel! Our characters are more thinly drawn than slasher victims, without an iota of their usual ability to be memorable. They're led by Scout Taylor Compton, who refers to herself as a doctor even though she's still in med school, and part of the thrust is the non-bitten people squabbling over whether or not they should reduce the risk to themselves by offing the infected, something Compton is vehemently opposed to. If this was some kind of Crimson Tide scenario where we the viewer didn't know "what the message said" (in this case, what would happen or maybe even if someone was actually bit or just injured) there might be some more punch to it, but as anyone watching has seen several thousand zombie stories by now, it makes it quite hard to side with her.

I'll give it this though: they don't waste much time getting to the scary stuff; one of the campers gets bit in the first ten minutes or so, sparing us too much of their personal drama (at least no one's cheating, but a jealous ex isn't that much of an improvement). Interestingly, the movie kills off the males of the group first, but with the surviving women making such dumb decisions it doesn't quite land as a feminist movie either, so there's not really any benefit to it. To be fair, it's competently made, the zombie makeup is good, and it never overstayed its welcome or anything - it's a perfectly "fine" movie, in other words. But there's nothing in it you'll remember twenty minutes later either; indeed, my wife actually watched a chunk of it with me before going to bed (I honestly can't remember the last time she partook in "Horror Movie A Day" type activity, as she usually has too much work to do) and the next morning when she asked how it turned out, I had trouble answering a few of her more specific questions. No permanent spot on the shelf for you, Feral!

What say you?


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