Werewolves Within (2021)

JUNE 27, 2021


I knew I'd be on board with Werewolves Within's brand of humor instantly, when the film opened with a quote set to ominous music, as many horror movies do, only to attribute (with a Halloween style musical sting) the quote to Mr Rogers. That's the sort of dry/weird joke I love, and the same subtle/nervous comedy kept me cackling throughout most of the movie's runtime, though it won't obviously be as funny for everyone (in particular the gentleman to my left, who was sitting next to my assigned seat and thus was either sitting in the wrong seat or a sociopath, so it wasn't surprising he was also a humorless tool as I don't think he laughed once). That, along with the very limited werewolf action, might make it a tough sell for some.

To be clear, this is not a "horror comedy" the way American Werewolf in London is - it's a straight up comedy that may or may not have a werewolf in it. In the opening scene, a man is killed by something offscreen, and when his body is discovered a month later (you know, when the moon is full again) it is determined that an animal did it. However the residents of this isolated small town also discover that their generators have all been destroyed, which suggests it was done on purpose, something an animal wouldn't know to do. And thus the werewolf theory is brought up, but it's not until the film's climax that we are given a firm answer of whether or not it is indeed a lycanthrope or someone just using the myth to get around and do what they need to do.

Instead it's kind of a riff on The Thing or something along those lines, where everyone is holed up in one spot (a hotel in this case) and accusing each other of being the culprit. The residents are at odds due to a proposed new pipeline that will require some of them to sell their land; some of them are all for the idea (due to the money it'll bring in for them), others lived there specifically for the scenery and do not want it all torn up for what may be an environmental hazard. Add in an affair and some low key political disagreements ("Lock her up" is invoked) and you have the makings of a solid paranoia story, where everyone has a good motive for offing some of the others and (as the title suggests) more than one guilty party - werewolf or not - is likely.

And caught in the middle is our hero, Finn (Sam Richardson) a ranger who just arrived in town and is possibly the only sane person in the film. His guide around town is Cecily (Milana Vayntrub), the lone mailperson and possible love interest for the recently dumped Finn, and the two of them have terrific chemistry that can always be counted on to tide over some of the film's slower spots. Because the script is designed to not tell you whether or not it really is a werewolf until it absolutely has to, not much happens in terms of "horror" for long stretches of the film - in fact, at one point a character is killed off screen entirely in order to preserve the mystery that much longer. Some horror comedies can still work on you even if you're not a fan of the style of humor, because there's enough of the horror element to keep you invested (Slither comes to mind as a well balanced example), but with this one... if you're not laughing a lot after ten minutes or so, you might as well just cut your losses.

Luckily for me I was very much on its humor wavelength. At times I was reminded of Drowning Mona, a dark comedy from 2000 that, despite its cast (Danny DeVito, Neve Campbell, Jamie Lee Curtis, Will Ferrell, Casey Affleck...) has never really found its reappraisal, but if you're a fan of that one you should find lots to like here. I am not as familiar with Richardson as many as I didn't watch Veep or Detroiters, but he's been someone who always managed a few good laughs out of me whenever he popped up in supporting parts (his "Baby of the Year" sketch on I Think You Should Leave was one of that A+ series' best moments) so I was delighted to see him taking lead duties. Half of his role is basically just reacting to the nonsense around him ("Never the left" nearly killed me, for those who have seen it), and most of that nonsense is funny itself, so I rarely stopped chuckling in any scene where more than two or three people were involved.

This unfortunately means that once the body count starts to rise, it gets less funny, though it's still not really coming off a "horror movie" (by design, I should stress). With less people to bounce jokes off, the laughs become a little more scattered, which wouldn't be an issue if they had ramped up the werewolf concept, but alas - that opening scene is about as scary/suspenseful as it gets, at least until the climax. It's not a crippling flaw, but again, if you aren't as amused by its comedic stylings as I was, I can see how this stretch of the film might be interminable. There's also one actor who doesn't seem to realize they're in a comedy, so they tend to throw off the chemistry a bit (and yet are also one of the last to make their exit), so I couldn't help but think if their role was played by someone with a little more pep that they might have smoothed over this minor rough patch.

Otherwise it's a real gem, and I was happy I got to see it in a theater with a mostly appreciable crowd, as the lack of that sort of energy can be deathly when you're watching this kind of film alone at home (it's coming to VOD like, this week). I was also surprised to see the Ubisoft logo at the top; I knew there was a game with the title but I didn't realize this was actually a licensed adaptation (albeit one that has almost nothing in common with the source material beyond the title and basic concept of trying to figure out who is a werewolf; even the setting is different). Maybe that guy next to me was a game fan, angry at how much they changed? But whatever; the game doesn't have Milana Vayntrub spiritedly dancing along to Ace of Base's "The Sign" or Sam Richardson shouting "BALLS!" over and over at the advice of a self-help tape on how to be more manly, so I'm gonna go ahead and say they made the right call.

What say you?


Kindred (2020)

JUNE 20, 2021


When Scream Factory said they were putting out Kindred, some (including me) assumed it referred to the 1987 movie with Rod Steiger, a mutant baby thing that's right in their wheelhouse. But no, it's a new film (coming from SF via their IFC partnership), a sort of Rosemary's Baby/Flowers in the Attic hybrid about a woman who is having a pretty rough month: first she finds out she's pregnant despite being on the pill, and then her boyfriend gets killed in an accident, prompting her would-be mother-in-law Margaret (Fiona "Aunt Petunia" Shaw) to decide to basically trap her in her stately manor until the baby is born, feeling she's got a right to be a part of its life as it's all she has left of her bloodline.

Not a bad plot for a film, and for the most part it works just fine, though it can feel a bit repetitive the longer it goes. And it does go long; it's over 100 minutes and yet what I already described is pretty much the extent of its narrative. Our pregnant hero, Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance) occasionally attempts an escape or tries to get someone to help her, but nothing ever works: she ends up back in the house and/or her would be saviors turn her directly over to the mother and her stepson, Thomas (Jack Lowden). The thrust comes from whether they actually mean to do her harm (i.e. will they kill her once the baby is born) or if they're actually right to be so over protective, as not only does Charlotte not want the baby (at first anyway) but she exhibits signs of some kind of mental illness that causes her to see things and forget things.

The way this is handled is pretty interesting. Early on she cuts her hand on a glass, and we see this, but she doesn't remember it the next morning - as far as she's concerned, they did something to her in her sleep. So any other developments, such as when she wakes up to find Thomas in her bed and he claims she asked him to be there for some kind of comfort, we are left not fully knowing if she is being gaslit or if Thomas is telling the truth. Apart from locking her in a room for a bit (after she becomes violent), they never really do anything harmful to her, so as far as we can see their only real crime is being overprotective of a child that they have no claim to but seemingly only want to ensure it doesn't die due to the mother's increasingly irrational behavior.

So we're dealing with a lot of gray areas here, essentially. It'd be easy to say Charlotte's the hero and Margaret is the villain, but (and perhaps actual parents like me - watching on Father's Day no less - will be more susceptible here) when it comes to the safety of the child, there is no question that despite her domineering attitude, the kid's got a better chance with Margaret. Charlotte, on the other hand, hallucinates a flock of birds attacking her car and ultimately crashes, the sort of thing that might have easily killed them both (she also repeatedly drinks and smokes after discovering she is pregnant). But your sympathies will likely lie with her anyway, because at the end of the day she is repeatedly having control of her own life being taken away. Even boyfriend Ben goads her into keeping the child when she discovers she's pregnant, waving off her hesitation and telling her she'd be a great mom.

The occasionally frustrating vagueness and circular plotting is more or less balanced out by the terrific performances of its central trio of cast members, in particular Shaw who gives an outstanding three and a half minute monologue about the double edged sword of parenting, and how she regrets being selfish when Ben was an infant - it apparently took her a few years for her protective nature to kick in. Director Joe Marcantonio lets it play out in an unbroken shot with an almost imperceptible dolly in, and it's far and away the best part of the movie, an almost literal centerpiece (meaning it comes around the halfway mark) that would have probably bumped the movie up a full star for me, if I were to give ratings here.

Marcantonio provides a commentary for the disc's lone extra besides the trailer, and while it's more technically oriented than I would have liked (as he cowrote the script I was hoping for more narrative insight) it's a pretty enjoyable track all the same. He notes that the presence of tea in the film was not an intentional reference to Get Out, as many have claimed, and also explains that the script was not written for a Black woman, specifically, but she just happened to be the best actress that he saw for the job (he notes he only made one change as a result: instead of the locked room she was originally chained to the bed, but he didn't want people to draw that connection). He also wonders if anyone would listen to it, to which I say "I did!"

He also, at one point, says that he didn't really cut much out of the movie, though he notes several occasions where something was removed, so I guess I should be grateful that the movie isn't over two hours long as it seemingly could have been. He could have cut MORE (there's a random bit with a groundskeeper that has no bearing on anything that I could see), but as this is also the sort of movie that demands a little patience, perhaps by keeping it over 100 minutes he is ensuring the sort of folks who will hate it won't ever bother with it anyway as it's "too long." Ultimately, there are better options for this sort of thing (I'm glad he mentioned Park Chan-Wook on his commentary, as Stoker came to mind more than once during my viewing, both in general atmosphere and in creepy piano usage), but it's not like we're being inundated with them, so there's no harm in a slightly lesser entry joining the field. It's better than that other Kindred, at any rate.

What say you?


Killdozer (1974)

JUNE 15, 2021


There's nothing worse than a trailer or ad campaign for a film being very misleading, as it does a disservice to the film by angering the people who showed up and all but ensures it won't find its actual fans until it's been written off as a flop. But it's kind of amusing when the only one to blame is myself, as if I was ever pressed to describe what Killdozer was about, I would have said "A guy makes a tank out of a bulldozer and gets revenge on the people who destroyed his home," but that isn't remotely accurate. Turns out I combined the real life story of Marvin Heemeyer (whose modified bulldozer was indeed dubbed "Killdozer", despite the fact that, miraculously, no one was killed with it in his rampage) and the plot of King/Bachman's Roadwork in my head, somehow, and made up a different movie in my head.

Turns out, the actual movie is about a regular bulldozer becoming sentient thanks to hitting a meteor rock during a job, and proceeding to wipe out most of the crew who is working on a remote, uninhabited island, away from anything else for the bulldozer to do. It was a 1974 made for TV movie, so you'd be a fool to be surprised it had some slow parts, but when not much was happening I was entertained by the gradual realization of how I managed to come up with the wrong plot. The "Killdozer" element was easy enough to figure out (Heemeyer) but between the driverless machine running people down and "meteor shit" to blame I can only assume someone said, at some point, "Stephen King must have seen Killdozer" and I merely managed to attribute a different one of his plots to this. The human brain is fascinating, guys.

Would my imagined movie have been any better? Maybe. It certainly would have been more interesting to look at, as there are only six people in the thing and they manage to kill the distinctive ones off first. One was the lone person of color and the other stood out because it was a young Robert Urich, who my dad knew somehow (I forget the specifics and they're both dead so I can't ask) and was thus a common presence in my early TV watching days, as my parents would gravitate toward things he was in and point him out. I doubt this one was ever one they had me watch; plus he dies first so my horror-hating dad wouldn't have watched any further anyway. Worse, there is literally nothing on the island beyond the men, their makeshift camp, and scattered equipment, so Killdozer doesn't have much to destroy, nor do they have anywhere to hide.

So the movie gets pretty repetitive, as you can imagine. Killdozer shows up and kills someone, they bury him, talk for a bit, try something that doesn't work, and then someone gets killed. Lather, rinse, repeat. One could even think of it as a proto-slasher of sorts, but if you think of the blandest body count movie there's at least some scenery changes to enjoy, which doesn't apply here. Worse, the screenplay (co-written by Theodore Sturgeon, based on his short story) seemingly loses interest in itself as it goes, with the deaths getting progressively lazier. The first one it actually kills (Urich is just sort of fried by its activation and dies later), the guy crawls inside a big pipe thinking he'd be safe, only for the 'dozer to batter it around and send him to his doom - not bad. But by the end, it looks more like that bit in Austin Powers with the steamroller, as the guy is in his jeep trying to get it started while the villain rolls toward him. At no point does the man think to simply get out of the car and run, as the thing isn't very fast and also can't exactly turn on a dime, making escape pretty easy. Nope, he just sits there, even has time for a "Oh shit, I guess this is it..." kind of expression as he literally waits to be crushed. Come on, movie. Try harder.

That said, it's still pretty amusing in its way. It was a 90 minute block TV movie, so it's under 75 minutes (just once I wish one of these would come with the vintage ads that aired along with it) and thus even with the repetition doesn't have time to wear out its welcome, and the extraterrestrial origins were a nice surprise. Whatever remote control type invention they came up with (or hidden compartment for a driver) to operate Killdozer was effective enough; I was surprised how many shots there were of it driving along without a visible operator. And the cast is great: Clint Walker is the lead and he's backed up by Urich, Neville Brand, and James Wainwright (if you name a single television show of note from the '70s or '80s, he was probably in it); the "isolated, all male" grouping is rare in horror (The Thing being the most prominent) and they all play off each other well, even allow themselves to get sad when someone dies. I was also relieved that the Black character wasn't "the BLACK character"; no one ever mentions his race or treats him differently, which obviously wasn't a guarantee at this time and can really sap the fun out of these older films when seeing them for the first time today (this does not mean that they should be JUDGED by today's standards, to be clear - I speak only of how such dated attitudes can distract from the experience).

Kino Lorber's disc (which I found at Target, amazingly; you can't even guarantee that they'll have mid-level box office hits anymore now that their physical media section is so tiny, but they had Killdozer) has an audio interview with director Jerry London (a TV director through and through, which should tell you how interesting he is to listen to) and a commentary by historian Lee Gambin, who provides some insight on TV movies at the time, how the film differed from its source story, etc. He also points out some of the other movies that were shot in the same location (such as Hell Comes to Frogtown), though it looked familiar to me when I watched it the first time so I had already looked it up - same spot as Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3, which is right around the corner from Six Flags Magic Mountain (eerily, there was a lone bulldozer near the parking lot for a long time I always wondered about). Like the film itself he eventually runs out of gas (vehicle puns!) and leaves with a few minutes left in the runtime, and it's almost never scene specific, so it can be a little less than engaging, but if you're a die-hard fan of this film or any of the actors, there's probably enough in there to warrant a listen. Since the movie's so short and he quits early anyway it'll only take another hour or so out of your life, so you might as well if you bought Killdozer to own forever.

What say you?


Censor (2021)

JUNE 13, 2021


One of my sadly unfinished HMAD projects was to watch all of the "Video Nasties", selecting ones I hadn't seen yet for the day's entry and giving "non canon" reviews to the ones I had. Alas, assuming I tagged them correctly, I only got a little over halfway through the list of 72 films on the "Section 1" and "Section 2" lists (the "Section 3" list was as big as the other two combined and was added later, so it was more of a "Maybe I'll do those once I finish the real ones" project). But the film Censor inspired me to at least make a list of the ones I hadn't got to yet and keep an eye out for them if they appear on Shudder or get added to the extensive/vaunted libraries of companies like Severin or Vinegar Syndrome, so *cross fingers* maybe I will eventually get to them all.

It's one of a few things that made my time with Censor ultimately rewarding overall, despite the film itself stumbled in its final reel. Set during the actual Video Nasties heyday in 1980's UK, the film stars Niamh Algar as Enid, a censor (hey that's the title!) who is tasked with writing up horror films and deciding which parts need to be removed, or if the film can even be passed for a rating at all. Unfortunately, presumably for rights issues, all of the films she watches are fake (not counting a title sequence that gives a few glimpses at real movies), which felt like a missed opportunity given the real world origins of its plot. The lone exception is Deranged, which is never seen but does play a part in the plot, as the film allegedly inspired a man to cut off his wife's face, not unlike an action that film's Ed Gein stand-in committed. Because the film got a rating with only a few cuts (and thus was not one of the banned "Nasties"), she is in hot water from the press and public, taking blame for the man's crimes because she "didn't do her job" and ban the film outright.

This subplot doesn't play much of a part in the grand scheme of things (in fact - minor spoiler - the late reveal that the guy never actually saw the movie anyway is basically tossed offhand) because Enid is far more concerned with the fact that the star of her latest assignment ("Don't Go In The Church", which prompts a pretty funny line about how they're running out of places they shouldn't go into) is a dead ringer for her sister Nina, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances when they were children. Her parents, not wishing to spend their final years hoping for a miracle, have decided to have her declared dead, so this along with the discovery of the actress who may actually be her sends Enid into a spiral. What actually happened that day? Is this actress really her sister? Will "Don't Go In The Church" get banned?

All of these plot threads established by the script by Prano Bailey-Bond (who also directed) and Anthony Fletcher, based on their earlier short titled "Nasty", have the makings of a perfectly good Polanski-type thriller where a woman unravels, but unfortunately everything goes off the rails once Enid's journey takes her to the set of the latest film starring the girl she thinks is her sister. Here, the film's Natural Born Killers-esque penchant for switching film formats and jumping between hallucinations and reality start to get the better of it, and after having me in its pocket for an hour it basically lost me. I couldn't believe how relatively quickly it began clearly heading toward a conclusion; amusingly, I saw it at the Drafthouse, which has a unique way of letting you know when a movie is almost over as they bring you the check for your dine-in service when there are only 30 minutes to go (including the credits). When my server brought the bill, I actually assumed he had it wrong and there was still lots more to go. Nope! It's just the rare film I wished was longer!

(Spoilers in the next paragraph, feel free to skip it!)

We're never given a clear explanation for what happened to her sister; we can suss it out from the little bits of info we're given along the way, but our protagonist never seems to be aware of it, which seems like a missed opportunity. There's also an undeveloped idea stemming from a Wizard of Oz-y type family film she seems to fixate on during a scene at a video store; the film comes into play in the final scene here, but again we kind of have to do a lot of the legwork ourselves (not always a problem, but when a movie is barely over 80 minutes with credits, they certainly could have padded it out with plot clarification instead of, as they do, repeating the entire credit sequence). And I love the idea that these censors are actually acting out of guilt for their own misdeeds and looking to assign blame elsewhere, but we meet at least five of her coworkers - are they all doing the same? If not, then the idea doesn't fully work, because they're just doing a job without any personal traumas informing what they do. Worse, they all just disappear from the story after a certain point, which, again, makes the movie feel incomplete. I assume it's a meta statement on how censors made those older films incomplete by hacking away at them without any regard for creative intent (the film's final shot of a VHS tape of "Censor" being ejected from a VCR points in that deconstructionist direction), but while that's a clever idea, it doesn't quite work when the film's gory murders are seen in full.

Until then, at least, it's an intriguing thriller with a unique (and appealing) backdrop. I was impressed with Algar after seeing her in the Statham vehicle Wrath of Man, and was delighted to see her taking center stage here (except for horror footage presented in full-screen, she is in every scene of the film). Her pulled back hair and matronly wardrobe tells us everything we need to know about how she might feel about the likes of Cannibal Holocaust before she even utters a word, and she handles the character's downward spiral perfectly (more and more of those tightened hairs seem to go out of place as the film continues, a nice little touch). And I hope it was intentional to present the censors' office space as the bleakest and most oppressive one of its type since Joe vs the Volcano, because it made me feel better that these horrible people would at least have to suffer in an equally horrible work environment.

I also loved the throwaway line about a film with "so many" S and F words that they couldn't cut them and just gave the film a "15" rating, because it pointed to the arbitrary nature of these boards when compared to America's MPA/CARA system. A 15 rating means no one under 15 can see the film (even with a parent), but that same rating is given to films that get PG-13s here (i.e. the Quiet Place films) as well as films that get Rs for violence (i.e. the aforementioned Wrath of Man), and even tweens can see the former without parents. So in one country, a 14 year old can't see the pretty much gore/violence free Quiet Place even with his parents, but they can all come here and see the gory/F bomb laden Spiral together. The only rating we have that teens can't see even with a parent is the super rare NC-17, which is pretty much only given to films for excessive violence or nudity (rare would-be exceptions, like The Aristocrats, end up going unrated because the NC-17 is a kiss of death).

So it's frustrating that I ended up being so cold on the film's final reel, because there was so much to like (enough that I'd still recommend seeing it, to be clear) but with a conclusion as good as the rest it'd be in that "Possibly in my top 5 for the year" kind of territory. I didn't even know it was based on a short beforehand, but it makes sense now; short filmmakers tend to have terrific ideas but fumble the endings when they make something longform, because their skill at hooking us early doesn't easily translate into a traditional three act structure. But even if the whole thing stunk, it might inspire those who have never heard of the Video Nasties to look into what is one of the more fascinating topics in horror history, so on that level I'd still call it a win anyway.

What say you?


The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021)

JUNE 6, 2021


You might notice that "Haunted House" is not among the genre tags for The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, and no that's just not me being lazy. Outside of that waterbed scene that featured heavily in the film's trailers, there really isn't a lot of traditional HH stuff in the film, as it wisely moves away from the template set by the first two Conjurings and opts for something closer to an X-Files/Supernatural type of procedural, with Ed and Lorraine discovering that their new family was cursed and - rather than stay with them and let the usual spookiness occur - they hit the road and try to solve the mystery.

And, while far from perfect, it largely worked like a charm for me. I didn't have a lot of love for Conjuring 2, I must admit; the family wasn't as compelling and it was clear they were trying to recapture the magic of the original despite having less to work with, so trying a new tack was the correct decision if you ask me. Director Michael Chaves isn't as strong a director as James Wan, but perhaps he realized this after Curse of La Llorona (for my money the low point of this universe*) as he barely even attempts to pull off the same kind of hokey (if often effective) scares that are this series' trademark. Instead he goes unnerving bits of violence and a sense of real world menace, which coupled with Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson's always welcome performances and a less made-up story than usual more or less makes up for the reduction in successful jolt moments.

By "less made-up" I refer to the fact that the case it's based on, the one where the film got its silly subtitled, actually did leave a man dead. Whether the culprit was just crazy or there really was some kind of satanic/supernatural explanation for what happened will be up to your personal beliefs, but unlike the previous film's "true story" there is no argument that something resulted in a person losing their life, and his murderer was sentenced to prison for it. That throughline gives the movie more weight than a couple of little girls making things up (or their parents making it up and having them parrot it), which is how you can explain away "The Enfield Poltergeist" and the like. Even the Warrens' real life involvement with this particular event was more substantial than C2's (in which their involvement was so minimal it's not even mentioned in some writeups of the story), as they were familiar with those involved before the murder even occurred.

For those unaware of the story, Arne Johnson murdered his landlord in 1981, later claiming it was possession - but his excuse wasn't out of left field. As it turns out, his girlfriend's little brother David Wetzel was possessed (or "possessed") several months earlier, and seemingly cured during an exorcism, though witnesses (including the Warrens) believe that the demon merely left David's body and entered Arne's. I mean, if you're gonna pin the devil on a murder you commit, it helps to establish the alibi months ahead, right? Alas, in real life the judge refused to buy into any such nonsense, and the trial went on without any introduced evidence of demons or the like, and Arne was convicted of manslaughter after his defense went with a more believable "self defense" excuse. He only served five years in jail and has lived a pretty normal life since, best as I can tell.

The movie spins things differently, obviously, since that wouldn't make for a very engaging two hours (yes, two hours - I was so relieved this one didn't test my patience like C2 did with its 2.5 hr runtime). The courtroom stuff is treated as a kind of ticking clock, with Ed and Lorraine needing to find some kind of proof of Arne's condition to bring before the court or else he will be tried and likely executed for his crime. Their research into the house where David lived reveals a hex, suggesting that the family was not possessed, but cursed, and from there they enter the world of witches and Satanists, discovering a link to another murder, etc. Their adventures ultimately lead them to John Noble (yay!) as an ex-Priest who, like the Warrens, has a locked room full of books and trinkets about the black arts that he keeps in order to keep them out of evil hands.

Eventually the case leads them to another connection to this universe, which I guess could be a spoiler so I won't get into it. Instead I'll just say that the movie works despite seeming like a not always graceful attempt at combining a traditional Conjuring film with one of its spinoffs. Even that aforementioned waterbed moment is kind of shoehorned into the proceedings, as Ed says something like "We need to go back to the beginning," which prompts a flashback of David, one his first day of moving into that house, sitting on the waterbed and getting his little mini-haunted house movie in return. At first it seems like this might be a lengthy round of backstory leading up to the opening scene where he was exorcised, but that's pretty much it. After everyone settles down we return to the present day and pretty much never even see the Wetzel family again other than Arne's girlfriend.

Of course, this might be due to the fact that in real life, David and his brother Carl (who isn't even in the movie) sued the Warrens for exploiting them, so the producers probably felt it was in everyone's best interest to minimize their involvement as much as possible. But again this kind of makes the movie feel a bit scattershot, and also reduces how much our ptotagonists can do their nurturing act - there are no opportunities for Ed to pull out his guitar in this one, sadly. That said we get just as much, perhaps a little more, of how much these two love each other, again making me appreciate that there's a major horror franchise focused on heroes instead of villains for once. During David's opening exorcism (which is a terrific sequence, I should note - super tense and given a small bit of levity with a pretty great Exorcist nod) Ed suffers a heart attack, which leaves him a bit winded and relying on a cane for the rest of the movie, allowing them some cutesiness that worked like gangbusters on me. At one point someone needs to crawl around in a dark basement, prompting Ed to protest that he should do it, only for Lorraine to smile and tell him to hold her purse - it's adorable! And there's a bit about his heart pills that had me practically cooing in the theater; maybe the scares don't always work on me, but I'm an easy mark for a tug on the ol' heartstrings. Still, I would have liked to have seen them bonding with either Arne or the Wetzels a little more.

(Also, for anyone confused why daughter Judy is so much older all of a sudden when their most recent entry was Annabelle Comes Home, I'll remind you that no movie in this cinematic universe immediately follows the one that was released before it. The chronological order is The Nun (released 5th), Annabelle 2 (4th), Annabelle 1 (2nd), Conjuring 1 (1st), Annabelle 3 (7th), La Llorona (6th), Conjuring 2 (3rd), Conjuring 3 (8th).)

So, again, it's not a home run, and I wasn't surprised to see people dismissing it (some even said it was the worst of this entire franchise, which, come on. It's not even the worst one by Michael Chaves!), but due to my own sensibilities being catered to, I found it more engaging than I would have if they stuck with the Wetzels' house the entire time. The occasional bits of humor (Noble explaining why he can't shake Ed's hand floored me) and focus on more flesh and blood threats kept my interest and more or less made up for its at-times awkward editing and structure (even the score suggests some production discord, as it's largely comprised of temp music, featuring everything from End of Days (!) to... 1917 and Sicario?). Hopefully they aren't scared off and return to more familiar territory with Conjuring 4 if there is one; I'd prefer if they just took what worked here and went even further off the beaten path next time around. It's the Warren characters that keep us coming back, so there's no reason to stick them in the same sub-genre every time out. And since the real life people are a. con artists and b. dead there's no real reason to even stick to their real life cases, as they can make something up 100% and it won't really be much different than the Warrens' "facts" that inspired them in the first place.

What say you?


A Quiet Place Part II (2020)

MAY 31, 2021


At the end of a long weekend with my potentially hyperactive son, A Quiet Place Part II could have devoted all of its (few) spoken lines to making fun of the length of my penis and I'd still probably enjoy it for its fantasy world where kids can't talk about *anything*, let alone what various Pokemon evolve into and who they would be good to fight against. But even if I saw it when I was supposed to, fourteen months ago (before Pikachu wormed his way into my son's head), I'd probably feel the same I do now: it's a terrific sequel that manages to be every bit as tense as the original while finding a believable way of getting around the sequel-proof end that earlier film seemed to be promising. Yes, the heroes know how to kill the monsters now... but how do they spread the word without making a sound?

After a terrific "Day 1" flashback opening that allows John Krasinski to reprise his role as Lee (starting with a scene at that same pharmacy that the original opened on, and Krasinski takes time to hold a few extra frames on that damn space shuttle toy, the jerk) and gives us a glimpse of what kind of chaos just one or two of these monsters can wreak on a full crowd, we pick up right where the original ended. The family is leaving their house and heading to presumed safety at an old friend of theirs, played by Cillian Murphy. Murphy is terrific and makes the most out of a fairly standard post-apocalyptic character: the former family man who lost everyone and is now too bitter to help, but is convinced by a child's plight to do the right thing. The trailer had me thinking he was an antagonist of a sort (Tim Robbins in War of the Worlds was my mental comparison) but he proves to be a fine hero and more than makes up for Krasinski's absence.

But it's actually kind of an ensemble this time, as the kids (same actors, thankfully*) take more central roles and, due to plot mechanics, find themselves separate from each other and mom Emily Blunt for a sizeable chunk of the runtime. Regan has the most synopsis ready storyline: after finding a radio broadcast playing "Beyond the Sea" in a loop, she quickly deduces that the signal must be coming from a nearby island, and if they can get there, they can broadcast her magic hearing aid signal to anyone listening and start a more effective fight back against the monsters. She leaves on her own in the middle of the night knowing the others wouldn't let her leave, prompting Blunt to send Murphy after her while she watches the kids. But then she needs to go on a supply run, leaving Marcus with the baby. And then... well, they all make noise.

There are two sequences in the film where Krasinski and his editors deftly switch from one character's plight to the next's, keeping the tension ever increasing by ending each scene on the "worst possible moment!" (i.e. a cliffhanger) to check in with another person's own imminent death, and it works incredibly well (Inception's multi layered dream sequence is a similar style, if my own description isn't clear). One would think cutting away would defuse a lot of that suspense, but it's quite the opposite, due to this particular franchise having established that no one is safe. Maybe you coulda guessed Jim Halpert would bite it at the end of the first movie, but not their youngest child in the FIRST SCENE, so there's never a moment of "they're safe, who cares, get back to the character who is in REAL danger!" thinking you might get if they tried something like this in a movie/franchise that had already tipped its hat that they didn't have the guts to take down a tyke or a big star.

In fact the scenes would work even if the characters could make sound, which drove a lot of the suspense the first time around. That's obviously a big part of it, but having spent that nickel in the first movie, there aren't a lot of scenes devoted to "How do they (go to the bathroom, put down a battery, etc) without making a peep?" in this sequel. Instead, the script (Krasinski solo; the original writers moved on) sticks to putting people in dangerous situations where sound is inevitable, like when poor Marcus trips a bear trap and his mom's only means of comforting him is to hold his mouth shut to try to keep him quiet (shoutout to Noah Jupe's pipes; even with Blunt's hand muffling them that kid's pained howl is unbearable). Even the inevitable "evil human" scene (which is thankfully brief) is tied into this idea: the villains don't wound our hero, they simply tie a chain of cans and bottles around his neck, preventing him from pursuing them as he can barely breathe without making a clatter.

That's the sort of thing that makes this an ideal sequel, a true rarity for the horror genre (even more impressive coming from a guy who probably doesn't have a lot of Scream Factory discs in his collection). The original was a simple idea milked for maximum effectiveness, and that's the sort of thing that can lead to big step downs for their followups (Halloween II and the Paranormal Activity franchise come to mind), but they find a way around it by coming up with different ways of having to be quiet, with the tradeoff being that they also found ways of having more dialogue. Murphy's character has a sound proof "room" (inside a tank) that can only hold a few minutes' worth of air but will let people have conversations (or, in Marcus' case, finally let out that scream), and later in the film he and Regan find another spot where making sound is possible. The combination of these two ideas gives a sequel that never feels like a complete retread, nor does it feel the need to add mythology or anything. Even the flashback doesn't really tell us anything we don't already know; the monsters coming from a meteor was established via newspaper headline in the original, so seeing it happen doesn't demystify them or anything like that. By the end of the film we know just as much about them as we did in 2018, and that is a very smart decision.

They also don't change the creatures, another plus, Most monster movie sequels (Tremors, Jurassic Park, etc) feel the need to create a different monster for them to fight, but that's not the case here: they're the exact same ones we saw before (barring whatever improvements in CGI they have afforded; the film cost 3x as much as the original). The added scariness comes from more survival type situations, like Marcus running out of air in the little tank while a monster stomps around outside, or Regan losing her hearing aid at a very inpportune moment. The film only spans like 36 hours or something like that, so there isn't much opportunity for anything grand, and (at least per my three year old memory of my one viewing of the original) there are fewer moments where I found myself wondering how this or that would have been possible to do silently.

(Do they ever eat, though?)

Long story short, they cracked the sequel code! I walked out of the first thinking a followup would be disastrous (unless it just spent 90 minutes on Emily Blunt driving around shooting monsters, which I still would have been fine with), but they went ahead and made one that's just as good as the already very impressive original. In my review of the first one I noted how I gave it four stars on Letterboxd, which I had just started using, and I hope you're as impressed as I am that I walked out, not remembering what I gave the first one (I just re-read my review before writing this one), and gave this one four stars as well. Most movies I give 3s, and when I like them I bump up to 3.5, so for both films to score 4s from me is truly an honor, I assure them. Guessing the 50m opening weekend means a little to them, but still. At any rate, if you haven't been back to the theater yet, this is a terrific choice (especially since the nature of the film tends to keep audiences quiet; of the six movies I've attended theatrically since theaters reopened, it was easily the most behaved crowd).

What say you?

*During the credits, the people next to me openly wondered how the kids didn't look three years older, assuming they used MCU style de-aging on them. This led me to think that they had no idea about the film's lengthy delay, which I found kind of sweet! I would love to be that in the dark about this sort of thing and believe a little more in "movie magic" than I ever can anymore.


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