The Rental (2020)

NOVEMBER 28, 2020


I forget who it was, but someone pointed out that The Strangers would have been an interesting movie even without the title characters, since the relationship drama of its protagonist couple was pretty compelling on its own (if you never saw, or forgot: she had just turned down his marriage proposal before arriving at their romantic getaway cabin). A similar attempt is made in The Rental, and doesn't even introduce the villain until the halfway point or so, but the key difference is Strangers' protagonists weren't bad people, and you could still root for both of them. Not so much here.

To be fair they're not AWFUL, but rather just cliches: it's the gala five millionth modern horror movie that has its protagonists involved in a secret affair. The title refers to an airbnb that business partners Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand) have rented to celebrate some new business deal along with their respective partners, Michelle (Alison Brie) and Josh (Jeremy Allen White). And Josh and Charlie are brothers, so it's a pretty tight-knit group... which had me suspecting an affair between Charlie and Mina almost instantly, because it's a modern horror movie and that's apparently the only thing that's legally allowed to serve as the source of drama in such things. Sure enough, one night Josh passes out drunk and Michelle isn't feeling well, leaving the others to take all of nine seconds to hop into the hot tub and then the shower.

Weirdly, the way it's depicted is so cavalier it seemed like it was an ongoing thing, like any time they could get away with it they would be fooling around. But the next morning the two make excuses not to join the others on a hike, and both seem to regret it and offer "that can never happen again" type sentiments, as if it was indeed the first time. So to me, the casual way it happened almost seems like a gag, in retrospect. Like, "We're the leads in a 21st century genre film, so we need to be having an affair. Let's just get on with it." And not just any affair - Charlie is banging his own brother's girlfriend, further reducing the amount of energy I can possibly devote to worrying about him. But while one out of four wouldn't be insurmountable, the others aren't particularly interesting either; they're all just stock characters whose names I couldn't remember by the time I wrote these paragraphs.

The closest thing to an exception is Mina, who is Iranian and suspects the guy renting the place out to them (Toby Huss!) is racist because she tried to book the place and was denied, only for Charlie (i.e. a white guy) to successfully book it an hour later. And yeah, it seems he is, as he makes weird comments like "How'd you get mixed up with these folks?" (i.e. white people), but that's the extent of it - when the movie paints him as a villain later due to the discovery of hidden cameras, there's a huge opportunity for them to treat him as a racist and act accordingly (and perhaps discover he never was racist, just weird), but it has nothing to do with that. They're only freaking out because that means he has proof of them having shower sex. So it's a totally go-nowhere plot point.

But once it turns into a slasher movie, it actually kind of makes up for all of the first half's lapses. If I may allow myself one spoiler (skip this paragraph if you don't want the killer's motive hinted at!) it's that this is where the Strangers comparison becomes more apt, as our guy doesn't give a hoot about their affairs or racially charged paranoia or anything like that - he's as indiscriminate as Michael Myers in the original Halloween. The final sequence of the film gives all the context we need (or will ever hopefully get), and justifies a lot of the movie's earlier issues, chalking things up to randomness instead of the convoluted giallo-like plot I was fearing (anytime a new business deal is involved one must suspect a money-driven motive for any killing that may occur!). Also, I can't fully explain this comment without major spoilers, so I will just say that the ending also avoids a pet peeve I have with surface-level similar films (if you must spoil it for yourself, or have already seen it and want to know what I'm getting at, read this review and forgive my thirteen year old drooling over its actress).

It also takes an interesting approach to the "should you put trust in a stranger?" element of such rental services. Mina is insulted by the guy before they even get there, and when Michelle mentions that she wished they had a telescope to look at the stars (not something we can really do in LA thanks to the smog) Huss says he'll bring one by later, and does - when they're not even there. Granted, when you're in a hotel there's any number of people who can access your room, but it's definitely different when it's someone who can't even really get in trouble for going in there - it's his house, after all (Mina even finds someone's meds in the bathroom). When it's a traditional home you might let your guard down a bit compared to a hotel room, but in reality it's more likely someone will invade your space when it's an open home. And who's to say the previous renters didn't make a key or something?

For a first time feature director, Dave Franco (who co-wrote with Joe Swanberg) does a fine job with the scary stuff; he even got a jolt out of me, something even the masters can't always achieve (seeing Brie here made me want to revisit Scream 4, a film that has not one decent jump). And even though they're all playing generic stock folks, the performances are solid, particularly White as the most sympathetic of the lot, a guy who has always felt like he can't be as successful as his big brother and then discovers the guy is banging his girlfriend for good measure. He also found a solid location, one that feels like a genuine place one would rent (and want to stay at) but also feels appropriate for a horror movie. I myself have only used airbnb once, and it was a very nice place but apart from the bizarre lack of a curtain or door on the shower (it didn't even have a rod for a curtain?) there was nothing "scary movie" about it - anything set entirely there would be pretty dull, I think. Also I wouldn't have banged my brother's girlfriend or anyone else in the shower since it didn't have a damn curtain.

Besides the trailer, the Blu has only one real bonus feature, a fluffy featurette that tells us nothing. Franco's done commentaries for movies he has only acted in, so I'm disappointed he wasn't on hand to chat about being on the other side of the camera - first time directors tend to make more interesting tracks than a tired guy making his 20th movie, and he's a charming guy anyway (he's the better Franco by a mile) so I wouldn't have minded listening to him talk about his choices/process. Perhaps he could have roped in his wife (that'd be Brie) to play a woman who gets cheated on? Oh well. I really should just get used to the physical release of a modern movie being treated as an afterthought I guess. Then again, the name of the film describes its existence - this is a perfect Redbox or iTunes rental, as it's a pretty good thriller with a great finale, but also nothing you'd probably ever want to watch again.

What say you?

P.S. I will spoil something here out of necessity, because I don't want anyone to shut the movie off when it seems like it's going the other way: the dog lives!


Whodunit? (1982)

NOVEMBER 24, 2020


Someday I will watch an early '80s slasher, and then discover that it was the last one to come across. And then I will weep, because discovering things like Whodunit? (aka Island of Blood) more than makes up for the forgettable junk I watch in between. I seem to vaguely recall hearing about it before, but for some reason I had it pegged as a spoof slasher like Pandemonium (also released by Vinegar Syndrome this year) or Student Bodies. But no, while it has some humor this is definitely a straight up slasher, hitting the scene just a little too late to be among the storied Class of '81 but would fit comfortably with things like Final Exam or Home Sweet Home, i.e. only of any real use to the slasher faithful, where they were clearly just rushing to get the movie done and into theaters before audiences grew tired of such things.

How rushed, you may ask? Well there's one character who spends the entire movie on crutches due to a broken ankle, but it's not used in any meaningful way and barely even mentioned. And the reason for that is that the actress they hired happened to break her ankle for real a few days before shooting, and rather than recast or wait for her to get better, they just pressed on as if nothing happened. On the interviews with the cast, they all seem to be surprised that the film was ever even released, let alone worthy of a special edition blu-ray, and they also all note that they weren't paid, so if the movie itself didn't give off those mercenary vibes, the supplements clarify it for you.

Ironically, the longest interview is with the film's editor, who only speaks briefly about his work on it, choosing instead to spend the time discussing how he got into editing and how he ultimately worked in sound editing. This means that he does not mention how his work is one of the film's low points; there are a record number of awkward pauses between lines, some of which are probably the forced result of a lack of coverage, but others clearly could have been refined to sound more natural. This makes the first reel a bit harder to get into, because it's mostly dialogue here and while the characters are pretty fun, the would-be funny lines tend to fall flat due to the editing.

So it's a tough well at first, but once the killer starts making his way through the cast (and people are in turn talking less) it picks up considerably, and a few of the suspense scenes actually work pretty well, so thanks, editor! The mystery is a little clumsy since there is a twist reveal to serve, but the actual process of picking everyone off one by one plays out just fine. The hook is that everyone is getting killed based on the lyrics of a punk song called "Face to Face" that plays at least a dozen times in the film, which is pretty novel and sets it apart from the usual gimmick-free body count flick of its day. While the main chorus is just "Hurt me! Hurt me!" it will change to "Boil me!" or "Spear me!" or whatever just before someone's death (often heard via Walkman that has been strung up like a weird pendulum), and then that person will be boiled/speared/etc. Since you hear the lyric before the kill, it's kind of amusing that you know what the method of death will be without the killer even appearing with the weapon in his hand, so not only is the song catchy, it's also saving money on the production by doing some of the work normally done by a stuntman in costume, stalking the victim. The song does the stalking for them!

(This is a cut version, alas)

The plot itself is one that's been done a number of times, with a hilariously small cast and crew of a movie being picked off on the eve of production (these things never have actual crews, it seems. Just a director, a producer, and some kind of all purpose "crewman"), but it's basically incidental once things get going. The pace is actually pretty fast for such things; the killer offs one guy almost instantly upon arrival at the island (played by Steven Tash, the poor schmuck Venkman kept zapping in his first Ghostbusters scene, making his subjects two for two in this department!) and gets another every ten minutes or so, rather than make us wait through a half hour of blood-free action to get to the good stuff. It's not particularly gory, but the killer does boil one person and spray acid all over another, so what it lacks in blood it makes up for in goop (someone clearly saw Karen's death in Halloween II). And both heroes and villains like to use a gas-powered nailgun (one that can be shot like a real gun; a real one needs to be pressed against something to fire a nail but movies never seem to care about this fact), so that offers some interesting visuals.

With some tighter editing this could have been on the upper level of golden era slasher, but as is it's still a solid entry that gets the job done, offering a little weirdness (mostly courtesy of the dorky John, who gives off a Radish from Final Exam vibe), some howler dialogue ("Where do you live, a tree in Disneyland?") and, again, that catchy af song, which I guarantee you'll be singing long after the movie finishes. Vinegar Syndrome's disc is, I think, the first time it's been available since the VHS days, and they have tracked down a handful of its participants to talk - some of them even in the covid era. I note that because some outlets are using the virus as an excuse not to do things, so I appreciate that VS is still putting in the same effort for their discs as they always did (the supplements all have subtitles too, so yay!). And when it's to rescue a forgotten little gem like this, it's all the better!

What say you?


Blu-Ray Review: The Brides of Dracula

NOVEMBER 13, 2020


Slowly but surely, Scream Factory has been building up their Hammer library, inching me closer to a dream of having the complete Dracula and Frankenstein sets in something resembling consistency on my shelf (an actual boxed set seems to be a pipe dream). And since my very out of order journey began with The Brides of Dracula, all the way back in 2007, it makes me particularly happy to see this one added to the lot. My enjoyment of the film inspired me to keep watching the others, often on DVD (one was actually VHS!), and it's been a long time since those viewings, making these remastered blu-rays an ideal way to see them again for what might as well be the first time.

That said I specifically remembered one bit in this one: Peter Cushing's Van Helsing (the lone returning character from Horror of Dracula, though another HoD actor plays a different bit part here) using the shadow of a windmill's blades as a makeshift cross to vanquish his vampiric foe. No, I'm not sure if that would actually work, but I'm always a fan of people making crosses out of other things in a pinch, and you can't get much better than Cushing going through the action hero theatrics of pulling it off in what's already been a slightly more action-driven entry than average. Having rewatched a lot of the Universal horror films over the past couple months, it made me appreciate how much more exciting the Hammer counterparts often were; I still enjoy the Uni ones of course, but if my son ever asked to watch "classic" horror, I think he'd lose interest in those pretty fast, but he might be able to stay focused on something like this.

I suspect the additional action here was a way to make up for the absence of Christopher Lee, as the movie has several antagonists in his place. There are the titular Brides, of course, though neither of them are married to Dracula as far as I can tell (the big guy is only mentioned once or twice in passing throughout the film), as well as a human woman, Greta (Freda Jackson) who is a sort of Renfield to the film's main "Dracula", Baron Meinster (David Peel) as well as his Baroness mother. All of these people are mostly introduced via Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur), who is en route to teach at a Transylvanian school when her coach abandons her in one of those towns that only exist in period horror movies, where everyone eats at the same inn and seems to be perfectly aware that there's a vampire/monster/whatever in town but don't feel particularly compelled to do anything about it.

Anyway, Marianne ends up staying at the Baron's manor, where she discovers Meinster chained up and frees him, unaware that his confinement (imposed by his mother) is for the protection of women like her. She runs off after learning the truth and passes out in the woods, only to be rescued by Van Helsing, who was summoned to the town due to one of the Baron's previous misdeeds. Van Helsing's reappearance is bizarrely without any fanfare; they make you wait over a half an hour for him to return in this "sequel" and when they finally do he just kind of shows up as if he was already there all along. Over the next hour he takes care of all the vampire problems that have sprung up, while Marianne inexplicably decides to marry the Baron (it is quickly but unsatisfactorily explained that she can't remember anything that happened in the first half hour), so you get the seduction stuff as well as the standard Van Helsing staking action - it's a pretty great mix.

Fitting for one of the better Hammer films, the blu-ray is packed and will take you several hours to get through it all. There's a full hour long episode of The Men Who Made Hammer devoted to director Terence Fisher, who helmed this and at least half of the other Hammer titles that probably come to mind when you think of the brand. It covers some biographical material but is mostly devoted to his biggest Hammer entries, as host Richard Klemensen illustrates why Fisher's work, often labeled as "work for hire" stuff, actually does have some consistent themes, as well as noting how much work he would put into the films despite their sometimes underwhelming scripts. That sentiment bleeds into a shorter episode about DP Jack Asher, who was also the type to give 110% and eventually fell out of favor due to being a bit too slow for their liking (despite the results speaking for themselves). Then there's also a piece on composter Malcolm Williamson, and a featurette on Oakley Court, which was used as the Baron's exterior here and has been featured in any number of other genre films (including Rocky Horror Picture Show!) and still stands today, as the hosts tour the grounds as the editor cuts in footage from where this or that part of the building was featured in different films.

And as always there's a historian commentary, this one from Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr. They goof on the "amnesia" subplot a bit more than necessary, but also go into why the script is sometimes a bit sloppy - it had to be rewritten twice, once just to get Cushing to be in it at all (he hated the first draft he was approached with) and also to account for Lee's absence, as they did try to get him to make a brief appearance which would have explained his connection to the Baron. They also refer to the bits that were originally written for this film and then resurrected for the (unrelated) Kiss of the Vampire, which Scream put out just a couple months back - the two would make a nice double feature, especially if you take in their respective commentaries as well. There's also an older making of retrospective piece featuring Monlaur and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, among others, that was on a 2013 release in the UK and (I assume) now presented on a Region 1/A disc for the first time.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: I truly hope these releases are successful enough for them to keep tracking down the others, because they're much more exciting to me than updating modern things like Idle Hands or Willard (i.e. movies that already had special edition releases when they came out). I doubt they'll ever get their hands on the Universal classics (just the B-movies that they collect for these sets, which I enjoy), leaving Hammer era material to account for the bulk of their "old" catalog and keep their portfolio a little more diverse. The Warner Archive discs that are available for a few of the entries in this series (Dracula AD 1972, for example) are bare-bones, and deserve better, but if these titles aren't big money makers for Scream I don't see them bothering to try to wrestle the license away from Warner or whoever else owns this or that entry. Here's hoping there will be more in 2021 and beyond!

What say you?


His House (2020)

NOVEMBER 6, 2020


A friend of mine said she had to stop watching His House one night because it was scaring her too much, which obviously piqued my interest since she was hardly a horror novice. If it was say, my sister, who can't even handle commercials for mainstream horror movies, it'd mean nothing, but a legit horror fan getting to the "had to stop it until later" point? That's something that demands my attention! So I dove in before the positive word of mouth left it with insurmountable expectations, and also before I had a chance to know much about it. I could assume from the title that a house was involved, but that's all I knew when I sat down.

Luckily, my friend wasn't being a dork - there are a couple of top-notch rattlers in the first half hour or so, particularly one that reminded me of the classic "angry stomping ghost is now inside the room" bit from the original Insidious. There aren't as many in the latter half of the film though, as the traditional scares are phased out in favor of some more true life horrors and an intriguing but not particularly frightening specter that ultimately serves as the antagonist. So if you're like my pal and feel that if the first 30 minutes are this scary the rest must be unbearable, relax! You've already cleared the scariest parts

The film centers on Rial (Wunmi Mosaku from Citadel, with which this shares some DNA) and Bol (Sope Dirisu), a pair of Sudanese refugees who have been granted temporary asylum in a rather rundown neighborhood outside of London. They are given meager means to live on and seemingly can't even blink wrong or they get tossed back to Sudan, but they seem relieved all the same. But it's hardly paradise; the house they are given is apparently bigger than normal (some of the case workers note that it's bigger than their own, though it seems like it'd get cramped with a few kids, at least to my eyes) but it's a dump - the front door falls off when they enter for the first time, and the previous tenants left them a maggot-filled pizza on the floor, for example. And worse: there's a ghost!

But it's clear that this isn't a coincidental haunting; the ghost is clearly after them specifically, and only a very dim person would fail to recognize that it has something to do with their daughter, who fell overboard as they made their way across the Mediterranean Sea (along with several other refugees). A series of flashbacks reveal some of the more unsettling parts of their journey, as well as what prompted their escape in the first place, which carries with it a rather shocking reveal that recontextualizes a lot of what we've seen and also why the couple seems to be estranged in the present. It doesn't help that Bol makes efforts to fit in (there's a bit where he buys a shirt he sees on a poster and wears it frequently throughout the film in an attempt to blend) while Rial wants to keep with their customs and remnants of their old life, which Bol thinks might be the source of the haunting.

Long story short there's a lot going on here beyond the usual haunted house stuff; it would actually be fairer to label the film as a drama with some supernatural elements, akin to something like The Eclipse (another one with a banger of a jump scare!) or the recent Relic than Poltergeist or whatever traditional horror movies Netflix will undoubtedly lump it in with. I don't say that as a knock, merely a heads up to adjust your expectations, because at first I found myself getting a bit bored waiting for the scary stuff to ramp up (armed with my friend's "too scary to watch in one sitting" reminder) until I realized that it wasn't really the point. Outside of the aforementioned jolts - which you may or may not even react to - the true scariest part of the movie isn't supernatural related at all. No, it's a flashback where armed militia types massacre a gathering where Rial was present, where she only survived by hiding among her dead friends. In one quick moment we realize that such occurrences aren't out of the ordinary there, hence why they needed to escape. The ghost was actually an improvement.

That said even on a dramatic level it sometimes feels a bit stretched out to hit the 90 minute mark. There are occasional instances of issues with their neighbors (Rial is even mocked and given a "go back where you came from," from a Black youth no less), and Bol seemingly makes a few friends when he goes to a bar to watch a soccer (well, football - it's a UK film!) game, but neither of these things are expanded beyond those respective scenes. Matt Smith pops up in a few scenes as their case worker, but each appearance just had me wondering why they weren't just immediately tossed out of the UK again. In an early scene we are given the impression that they are barely given more "freedom" than prisoners, akin to a parolee having to abide by certain restrictions or else they will be thrown back in jail, but despite tearing their house apart and acting totally crazy (Bol crushes a glass in his hand during one of his visits) they never seem to be in any danger of being removed. If these scenes were just removed, we could assume they hadn't had to check in or something, instead I kept wondering why they were being given so much leeway, which rings false. But hey, now Doctor Who is in the movie, which probably helps it get noticed.

So it's a bit uneven, but overall is definitely worth a watch, and an intriguing debut for director Remi Weekes (who wrote the script along with Felicity Evans and Toby Venables). He gets fantastic performances from his two leads, proves to be an ace with transitions (via a few of Bol's nightmares) and most importantly, doesn't settle for just the usual haunting tropes. I kept thinking that this would have been a perfect "Fantastic Fest movie", in that it took a standard premise and then made something more unique and daring with it, which is kind of a tradition with their selections. And it's probably something I'd enjoy even more a second time around, which is always a plus and truly rare for a genre film.

What say you?


Antebellum (2020)

OCTOBER 30, 2020


I have long been an advocate for going into a movie as blind as possible, feeling that knowing too much beforehand can dilute the experience by either informing you of things that should be part of the film's suspense (seeing a clearly rescued Tom Hanks in the Cast Away spots will forever annoy me) or giving you a false idea of what the movie is actually about. Then there are a few films where having a little background can actually help things; knowing that Cloud Atlas (hey, Hanks again!) unifies a general story across six timelines can help your brain settle into its unique rhythm much faster than someone who had no clue what they were in for, or that 2001 was eventually set in outer space will keep you from being confused when the apes open the film for an entire reel.

And then there's Antebellum.

At this point I'll have to warn you that there will be spoilers ahead, mainly because I feel I have no choice in the matter. The film is entirely based on a twist; the closest thing I can compare it to in that "we have to let you know what it's about even though it's treated as a surprise" sense is Cabin in the Woods. The two aren't necessarily alike in terms of plot, but both have that thing where if you tell someone the "simple" plot (in that case, five kids going into a cabin in the woods) they will rightfully say "Well I've seen that, what's the HOOK for this one in particular?", forcing you to tell them about Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins' roles in the proceedings to pique their interest. So if you absolutely want to go in blind - or feel your viewer skills aren't attuned enough to spot the twist early on (some folks admitted they didn't see it coming, for the record) - you should stop reading here.

For those of you who are still with me... OK, keeping in mind my Cabin in the Woods example, Antebellum is, on the surface, a movie about a woman on a plantation, struggling to perform her expected duties while trying to mount an escape. Nothing particularly wrong with that idea; if it was based on a true story of a woman who managed to do that (or tragically died trying but inspired others to try and succeed), it'd be riveting and score many awards, I'm sure. But in that movie, we'd likely meet our heroine (Eden, played by Janelle Monáe) prior to arriving at the plantation, and get to know her life a bit. An older woman would take a liking to her and show her the ropes, perhaps. Long story short, there would be an *introduction* to her and her situation. But here, we are just thrown into the plantation life, and Eden seems to be respected among the other slaves, but we're not sure why. She certainly doesn't tell us in her own words, since the slaves are forbidden to speak to each other even in private, which seems odd because there is clearly no one around to hear them unless they thought they were being bugged or something. But uh...

You can probably see where I'm going here. If not, last chance to back out!

OK, so thanks to this awkward, exposition free introduction, plus a dead giveaway in the form of a new arrival (Kiersey Clemons) who flat out asks "What IS this place?" as if a grown Black woman during the Civil War would be unaware of what a plantation was, I was quickly left with no choice but to assume that this movie was essentially cribbing the "it's actually not the past, it's modern times" twist from The Village and applying it to plantation life. To be fair, the trailers did some of the legwork for me, as they presented a Jacob's Ladder-y looking thing where a woman in the present (Monáe's character) was seemingly having flashes of another (past?) life on a plantation, whereas the movie didn't show the present day scenes until a good forty minutes in. But even so, there are a number of hints that things are "off" (Clemons' question for one), plus the aforementioned lack of a proper intro that will have any seasoned movie viewer's mind primed to simply EXPECT a twist. Hell there's even a shot that seems directly swiped from The Village, with noises coming from beyond a treeline - at that point I started wondering if it was even supposed to be a surprising reveal as opposed to something the filmmakers simply didn't want to spell out.

Another thing the trailers did was suggest it was a more consistent back and forth kind of deal between the two timelines, which might have helped keep the mystery at bay while making the experience more engaging as a whole. Instead it's just three distinct acts: the opening one on the plantation, which mostly revolves around Monáe and Clemons being tortured, the "modern world" one depicting Eden (actually Victoria, they're given slave names) in her day to day life as a successful writer/activist focusing on women's empowerment, and then back to the plantation - where now people are barely hiding the true nature (one soldier even vapes!) - as she mounts her escape. This severely limits how much time the writer/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz can spend developing their villains or any of the other slaves who are presumably also trying to get back to their families, making the film feel oddly hollow when it focuses almost entirely on a character who has to act like she has amnesia in order for them to spring their twist on us. The guy running the plantation is actually the state's senator, but apart from a billboard for his reelection and a soft focus TV screen showing him on a cable news show (i.e. two things you can easily miss since they're not the focus of either shot) we know nothing of his public persona. All we get is a handful of quick scenes showing him play-acting on the plantation, where not a single one of the slaves is seemingly ever ballsy enough to say "Wait, aren't you my senator?".

See, while it was pretty silly, the twist in the Village worked as (relatively) well as it did because the only people who were aware that it was really the 21st century were the ones who wanted things to be that way. Everyone else was born into it, not kidnapped, so they had no reason to question their surroundings. Here, apart from Kiersey's vague (and unanswered) question, everyone is just playing the part even in private, so... what, they've all been there for so long that they stopped questioning it? Even with the threat of violence, it's still unbelievable that there wouldn't be an uprising among dozens of people who were plucked out of modern day Atlanta and forced to pick cotton for a handful of racist jerks armed with period weaponry. There isn't any kind of tracking device or even a fence to keep them contained. With the soldiers murdering some of them anyway, how are they all not trying to escape every night? And where are their families? How long has this place - revealed to be on the grounds of a public Civil War reenactment camp - been doing this without being discovered? When some soldiers stop by, are they paying for some kind of "experience" weekend before going back to their normal lives? Or is it like a parttime job? I know they wanted to be the next Get Out, but I kept thinking more of Us, with a fantastical (and not inherently terrible!) concept that unfortunately leaves us with far too many questions about how it can possibly work, making the film feel more and more half baked with every reveal.

One thing it does succeed at is showing how a Black person's "free" life probably doesn't really feel that way to them. In the "past", Monáe is beaten by her oppressors; in the present she is constantly undermined and brushed off via microaggressions - and forced to keep her emotions in check in both. For a while I kept wondering why this was posited as a horror movie (the trailer makes it look far creepier than it ever actually plays as, even manipulating several shots that are totally normal in the film), but it kind of clicked during the Atlanta scenes. Yes there is awful and uncomfortable violence in the first act, but it's likely the horror fans they were targeting have seen such things so many times that the specifics are being somewhat muted. However, I couldn't help but squirm when Monae and her friends arrive at a fancy restaurant and "Becky" the maître d' attempts to seat them on a tiny table near the bathroom, or when Jena Malone's southern belle "compliments" Monáe by saying "you're so articulate!" as if it was a surprise. The average viewer might be far too sickened by the earlier stuff to even get that far, but we "veterans" can deal with it - and then seethe with rage at these "subtler" moments, allowing us to realize the grander point, that she has to deal with them on a daily basis. It's a well executed bit of shorthand, and I'd be curious to hear how these smaller moments played to non-horror fan viewers after the more overt examples of hatred in the first act.

You can't accuse the movie of hiding that "tone" was more important than "narrative coherence" though, as the film opens on an epic tracking shot through the plantation, set to some terrific and haunting score from Nate Wonder and Roman GianArthur. Filmed at magic hour for that perfect contrast between beautiful and horrifying, we see soldiers making their way around the grounds, slaves picking cotton and performing other manual labor, etc, getting the entire setting across in only a few wordless minutes. But it's also part of the problem; it's expertly done on a technical level, but at the expense of the creative side of things, as this is time that could have been spent identifying the characters we aren't really meeting in these technically flawless moments. There is no proper "in" to this world, as it's all held back in favor of a twist that doesn't fully work. I'd argue it never makes much sense for the hero of the film to be so much ahead of the audience in terms of what is going on, and that's exactly what's going on here for nearly half the runtime. By the time we are on the same page as her (when they return to the plantation setting), the movie is almost over, and I for one spent most of the remaining runtime just trying to figure out exactly how any of it worked instead of being as invested in her plight as I might have been with a little more work on the script.

That all said, if you thought it all worked perfectly and enjoyed the movie, I have good news: the Blu-ray is packed. There's a full hour long documentary about its production, a few featurettes (one about the clues the movie offers to its big reveal), the spoilerific trailers, and a handful of deleted scenes. The excised moments feature the senator character at the plantation, which sadly doesn't tell us any more about him but at least gives us a little more context to the relationship he has with Eden/Veronica, so there's something. And the making of actually did explain something: the filmmakers come from a music video and advertising background, so it makes sense than a strong script isn't as much in their wheelhouse as evoking a certain mood and emotion (hell, Bush even admits the story came from a dream he had, a fact that they perhaps should have put in the film where a "based on true events" disclaimer might have gone). Additionally, they talk far more about the cinematography and production design than they do writing or editing, so thanks to this piece (which also reveals an interesting tidbit - they were able to use some lenses that were actually employed on Gone With The Wind) I can forgive the movie a bit for its narrative lapses, as it seems a hole-free story wasn't as important as, essentially, pissing you off that things haven't changed as much as some of us (i.e. white folk like me) might like to believe.

If I'm right, then I guess my issues aren't any more relevant than complaining that an apple pie doesn't have blueberries. No, it doesn't make a lot of sense that they keep you in the dark for so long by having the lead character play along with a facade even when she's alone in a room, but the film does succeed at reminding us that the horrors Black people faced "back then" aren't over, not by a long shot (it's not the film's fault it was ultimately overshadowed by the record BLM protests that this year has inspired thanks to several horrible tragedies). I just can't help but think they could have made that point in a more structurally sound and less dishonest film, and in turn really knocked our socks off the way Get Out (and Us, albeit to a lesser extent) did*. Monáe and the rest of the cast are fantastic (Gabourey Sidibe in particular is a scene stealer, offering the film its only real levity as one of Victoria's BFFs), and it's one of the best-shot films of the year, but it rarely stopped being frustrating long enough to let it all gel into a cohesive masterpiece it might have been.

What say you?

*The three films share a handful of producers and the ads constantly reminded us of this fact (someone from Jordan Peele's company even had to go out of their way on Twitter to clarify that Peele himself was not involved) so it's a fair comparison to make in my opinion.


The Monster (2016)

OCTOBER 29, 2020


It's been a long time since I watched a proper "the car breaks down and now they're going to die" movie (assuming I haven't forgotten to use the tag, the last one was a revisit of 1000 Corpses over a year ago), so I was happy for the reminder that I never saw The Monster when it hit VOD a while back. It was an intentional skip at the time; after being so disappointed with Mockingbird I didn't want to be let down by Bryan Bertino again so soon and figured I'd give it a while (and maybe some good word of mouth) before risking it. And then I just forgot it existed! He has a new film coming out called The Dark and the Wicked and I honestly thought it was his third, not fourth. Sorry, The Monster.

Luckily it's a return to form; not AS good as The Strangers but in the same wheelhouse and offering the same kind of tension. Just as Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman were going through an awkward rough patch (she had just turned down his marriage proposal while they were staying in an isolated cabin), Monster offers us Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and her 12ish daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) who are never more than a muttered insult away from practically killing each other, due to the former's lacking skills as a parent. So lacking, in fact, that she is actually driving Lizzy to live with her father for the foreseeable future, seemingly for both their sakes, as Kathy is a drunken mess, mildly abusive (more verbally than physically) and the young girl is tired of having to take care of her instead of getting a chance to be a normal little girl. Flashbacks give us some low-lights of their relationship over the previous year, including a shouting match that has them both bellowing F bombs at each other until Kathy drives off, leaving Lizzy alone at the house and still needing a ride to her own school play. I mean, oof.

In other words, as with Strangers, it might have been a pretty tense and interesting movie even without the horror stuff, just to see if these two can actually make it to the dad's house without killing each other (Kathy's smoking habit is a constant source of contention). But then they have a blowout AND swerve to avoid an animal (a wolf! Nice change from the standard deer!) which causes Kathy to lose control and spin out, breaking her wrist and the car's front axel, stranding them in the obligatory middle of nowhere. They actually have cell service, but another accident is clogging up resources and the road to get to them, so it'll take a while to send the tow truck and ambulance... and there's a damn monster to boot!

Bertino doesn't spring the beast too soon, opting for a more gradual and subtler reveal. First they notice that the wolf has some injuries that are seemingly from a fight with another animal, then the corpse just disappears from its spot on the road. It's not until Lizzy goes looking for the corpse that we get a shot of the title character, and it's in the dark/blurry area behind her. The full reveal eventually comes, and it's not exactly the scariest looking monster in the world, but it IS a practically done one (in fact there's even a quick goof where we see the creature performer's human hand), so it's forgivable. And in fact it's probably intentional; the idea here is that kids can't always trust their parents, whether it be when they tell you that you don't have to be afraid of monsters or just because they might be shitty people, so giving it a sort of "child's drawing come to life" appearance, while perhaps not great for out of context still images, works for the film as a whole in a thematic way.

Naturally, if it's just the two women and nothing else this would be a largely event-free movie, as even by applying horror movie logic there's only so much of a chance they can possibly stand against the thing, with one being injured and the other being a child about half its size. The tow truck eventually arrives, driven by Aaron Douglas from Battlestar Galactica (nearly unrecognizable with long hair and a beard), so you can guess what happens to him. And later on the ambulance shows up, with two paramedics, some much needed supplies (I'm guessing Kazan grew to truly hate the tiny blood pooled bandaid she had to wear for most of the runtime), and a new vehicle for the monster to wreck. Between those diversions and the flashbacks (one of which features Speedman making a quick cameo as one of Kazan's jerk boyfriends) the film is never dull, despite the minimal plot and cast.

Over 90 tight minutes we see Kazan learn to finally be the protective mother she should have been all along, coupled with the irony that because of her lapses as a parent, her daughter had generated the survival skills she might have otherwise lacked. It's a great two hander setup, and both actresses pull it off wonderfully. The final flashback is downright heartbreaking, and I think it's key that these memories are never clearly identified in time nor are in any particular order. As much as they scream at each other, they ultimately have that bond that nothing can break, and so these flashbacks - some tender, some horrible - all could have happened in one day for all it mattered. Had they never encountered the monster, that love/hate relationship would likely ping-pong back and forth for the rest of their lives. And by keeping the dad confined to the other end of a phone instead of showing up to save the day (or get killed as well), Bertino never loses focus on how it's their bond that is driving the film toward its conclusion, with no other distractions.

Apart from a rather silly contrivance about the tow truck (the dude locks it up in the dark and pouring rain, as if anyone else was around to steal it?), everything works quite well here, and ranks as one of the better "trapped in a car" type movies. And more importantly, it got me excited to check out his new one after feeling equally unsure about it (I skipped a chance to see it at Beyond Fest this month); in fact it's coming to Shudder soon, and while I can't guarantee it'll be a day one viewing, I PROMISE it won't take me literal years to get around to it, either. Hopefully it'll be another win and I can be assured that Mockingbird was just a sophomore slump kind of thing. And if not? Well, he'll still have a minor slasher/survival classic and a really solid monster film on his resume, which is double (or more!) what many other genre directors can ever manage. No one hits it out of the park every time, but if you can pull off two wins? That's someone to keep an eye on for the long haul.

What say you?


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