Month: December 2017

The Shape of Water

shape of water

In the 1960’s a mute janitor, Elisa, works nights at a government research facility. She goes through the same lonely routine day after day, only able to communicate with her two closest friends, until the facility acquires a new “asset.” This asset is a strange and beautiful aquatic creature, as mysterious as it is dangerous. When Elisa forms a bond with the creature she decides that she must do anything she can to save his life.

Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak) is one of the most visionary writer/directors of our time. He is known for creating haunting films that are as strikingly beautiful as they are fascinating. While his credits include a number of fantastic films, The Shape of Water may be the most breathtaking film he has ever created. The plot seems to combine elements that display del Toro’s passions: classic film, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, and people who are considered “different” who find love and acceptance in each other. The influence of The Creature From the Black Lagoon is the most apparent aspect of the film. Del Toro himself has stated that it was his inspiration for the plot. What is more subtle is how del Toro injects his love of old Hollywood cinema into the film. Not only does Elisa reside above a movie theater, but she is often shown watching old black and white films with her neighbor and friend, Giles. Yet, it is the feeling of being an outsider, and finding others who feel the same, that is the focus of the film.

Elisa is not only mute, but she is an orphan as well. She is an outsider and spends much of her time alone. Her only two friends are also outsiders for a number of reasons; Zelda, who is a black woman in a time when that made you an outcast, and Giles, who is also an outcast in his own way. Their mutual loneliness brought them together as friends, and it is also what draws Elisa to the creature. She doesn’t see him as a monster. He is simply another outsider in need of companionship. This premise is something that many people can relate to in some capacity. The friendship that grows between Elisa and the creature makes the heart swell.

The entire cast of The Shape of Water delivers outstanding performances, from the leading lady down to fleeting roles that only last a few minutes. Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine, Never Let Me Go) is absolutely stunning as Elisa. Expressing strong emotion is difficult without a voice, but Hawkins does it perfectly. In a particularly powerful scene Elisa is desperately trying to explain to Giles why she has to save the creature. Watching Hawkins emotionally use sign-language to express her explanation is utterly heart-wrenching. Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) is also fantastic as the creature. Jones and del Toro have done many projects together, and Jones is known for his work as various strange beings that involve full body and face prosthetics. Much like Hawkins, Jones has to emote without the use of a voice, but he has the further disadvantage of not having a human face either. Still, Jones finds a way to push the emotion through the costume. Not surprisingly, Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire, Nocturnal Animals) delivers a very disturbing performance as Richard Strickland, the man who captured the creature and brought it to the facility. A common theme of this film is that humans are often the true monsters, and Shannon gives audiences a monster they can truly despise. While they have somewhat smaller roles, it is just as important to state how great the group was who makes up the remaining “outsiders” in the film: Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures, The Help) as Zelda, Richard Jenkins (Cabin in the Woods, Let Me In) as Giles, and Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire, A Serious Man) as Dr. Hoffstetler.

As with most of del Toro’s work, The Shape of Water is visually exquisite. The creature design alone is absolutely gorgeous. There is clear inspiration from the look in Creature From the Black Lagoon, but del Toro made the creature much more sleek and beautiful. The prosthetics blend so well with the CGI of the creature, creating a striking and realistic being. Along with the creature design, del Toro also made each scene stand out with distinct color palettes. Via Twitter, del Toro explained the meaning behind each color choice made in the film. He explains that Elisa’s apartment and things in her world are the cyans and blues of water, while the homes of other characters are the warm tones of gold and amber. The color red is for “cinema, life, and love,” which is apparent in the red drapes in the movie theater and how Elisa wears more and more red during the film as she gets closer to the creature. Green is used to represent the future. It is a prevalent color in the government lab, fancy new cars, and other items of the future. These deliberate choices add meaning in places it would not normally be found, as well as elegance. These choices allow del Toro to achieve a truly breathtaking aesthetic throughout the film.

The Shape of Water may be the most stunning film I have ever seen. Visually, it draws you in with gorgeous creature design and fascinating use of colors. The performances are absolutely outstanding, and the characters are fascinating. The story del Toro creates in this film is one of being an outsider, and finding others who feel the same and creating an intense, strong bond. I rarely watch a film where I wouldn’t change a thing, and I virtually never give out perfect scores for films. The Shape of Water is an exception, as I wouldn’t change a thing, and it is wholly deserving of a perfect score. The Shape of Water is a film that people will be talking about for years to come.

OVERALL RATING: 10/10

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The Devil’s Candy

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Jesse is a struggling painter. His life focuses on his art, his family, and metal music. When he and his wife find their dream home at a too-good-to-be-true price (due to the fact that the previous owners died in the home) they quickly purchase it. Everything starts out great as Jesse works away in his barn studio, but something dark resides in the house. When the son of the previous owners shows up out of the blue, things quickly begin to spiral out of Jesse’s control, putting his family at risk.

There are two things that stand out about the plot of this film: the way it integrates music throughout the story, and how it provides a more subtle look into satanic forces. Heavy metal music is a clear driving force throughout the film. Not only does this come through when Jesse and his daughter, Zooey, are bonding over their favorite musical genre, but the music is also directly connected with the demonic forces. When the audience hears what is likely the “voice” of the Devil it sounds very much like music. Also, the son of the previous home-owners, Ray, attempts to drive the voice from his head by loudly shredding his axe (playing his electric guitar, for those not well versed in metal-speak). The music goes along hand-in-hand with the demonic nature of the film and the often dark, grimy look of many scenes.

When a horror fan thinks of a film that focuses on satanic forces, typically what comes to mind is possession or demons wreaking havoc. The Devil’s Candy takes a much more subtle approach. We hear a satanic “voice” in the form of eerie music. Ray hears this voice and can only keep it out by playing music even louder than the Devil. Unfortunately, the satanic forces are too strong for him, and they drive him to commit unspeakable acts. The approach makes the film even more haunting and even a bit more realistic. Instead of a demon controlling a person’s body it is simply a voice in the back of the mind, like a constant buzzing, driving someone to do harm. What makes this more realistic is that from the outside it simply looks like a lunatic serial killer. Only those who can hear the Devil’s music know the truth. Writer/director Sean Byrne (The Loved Ones) even includes little hints such as Jesse trying to sell his art at a gallery called “Belial,” another term for the Devil, and the draw to become a respected artist continually tries to pull Jesse away from his family.

The Devil’s Candy is very much about music and satanic forces, but it is also a film about the bonds of family. Jesse and Zooey have a very close bond. Much of their bond is rooted in their mutual love of metal. As the satanic forces attempt to pull him further away from his family, it is Jesse’s love of his wife and daughter that continues to pull him out of the Devil’s hold. It is an interesting juxtaposition to see how Jesse is able to keep evil out of his mind because of his family, while Ray is unable to keep the voice out of his head no matter how hard he tries.

This film is filled with stellar performances. Ethan Embry (Empire Records, Sweet Home Alabama) absolutely shines as Jesse. This may be Embry’s most powerful performance as he shows audiences his struggle between his family and his desire to be a famous artist. It is almost as if the role was made for Embry, and I find it difficult to imagine anyone else in the role. Pruitt Taylor Vince (Identity, Constantine) also gives a disturbing performance as Ray. Vince has made quite a name for himself playing a series of unsettling characters, and his performance in The Devil’s Candy is no different. What makes his performance especially compelling is the way he is able to make audiences feel both sympathy and revulsion towards his character. Then there is relative newcomer Kiara Glasco (Bitten, Maps to the Stars) as Jesse’s daughter, Zooey. The way Glasco conveys the fear her character feels will give you chills. Together this cast is a force of nature driving the plot to its hellish climax.

The Devil’s Candy is a haunting film that perfectly melds disturbing events, satanic forces, dark imagery, and metal. The plot alone is interesting enough, but when it is combined with the music it becomes even more powerful. The Devil’s Candy also features amazing performances including a powerhouse portrayal by Embry. This is only Byrne’s second feature length film, and already he is making quite a name for himself in the horror industry. The Devil’s Candy is sure to be on many top ten lists for 2017.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

Better Watch Out

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In a typical, quiet suburban neighborhood, Ashley goes to babysit twelve-year-old Luke. The cold, wintry night starts out like any other night babysitting, but then intruders break into the house. Ashley does what she can to keep Luke out of harm’s way, but this is no ordinary break-in. It soon becomes clear to Ashley that there is something much stranger going on and she is going to have to fight to survive the night.

It seems like every year there is a new Christmas-themed horror film released to the masses. Some of them become instant classics, while others fade into obscurity. Better Watch Out definitely has the potential to become one of those instant classics. The plot starts out like your everyday slasher. It has the standard formula of a babysitter being terrorized by a mystery person (or persons) and having to protect the child they are babysitting. The terrorizing begins with creepy phone calls and quickly escalates from there. Without going into spoiler-filled details, what makes this film stand apart from other films with a similar plot is all the surprising twists and turns. There is always something more going on than meets the eye and it keeps the audience guessing right up until the credits roll. Many of these surprises allow the filmmakers to inject humor in creative and hilarious ways. The film also gives nods to other holiday flicks that we all grew up watching.

Apart from having a great plot, this film also has fantastic performances. Olivia DeJonge (The Visit, The Sisterhood of Night) plays the babysitter, Ashley. While this character fits more into the usual archetype commonly seen in babysitter-slashers, DeJonge makes it her own. DeJonge especially shines in how she portrays Ashley’s strength despite the odds being stacked against her. The true highlight of this film is Levi Miller (Pan, A Wrinkle in Time) as Luke. While Luke tries to be serious and appear older, since he has a crush on Ashley, he often brings laughs when he gets exasperated and his puberty-stricken voice cracks. Miller delivers a performance that is equals parts shocking, hilarious, and intriguing. Both DeJonge and Miller carry the film and make it all the more enjoyable to watch.

Being a holiday thriller means there is a healthy amount of blood throughout the film. The filmmakers don’t shy away from blood, yet there is a noticeable lack of practical effects in the film. When a person is stabbed the audience is shown the blood, but the wound is never visible. Many of the shots are clearly deliberately set up to avoid showing any real gore. This seems like an odd choice for an R-rated film. Whether this is a conscious decision to not focus on gore or if it is a budget issue, I can’t say, but I believe by not showing any wounds, the filmmakers inadvertently draw more attention to them. When I watch a slasher flick, I expect to see when a knife enters a person’s body and that is one of many things not shown in Better Watch Out. This absence of gore is the one true drawback to the film.

Better Watch Out breaks the mold of the typical holiday slasher and is sure to be on everyone’s holiday must-watch list. It takes everything audiences love about the holidays and everything they love about horror to create a fun new Christmas movie. It is clever, entertaining, and exceedingly well acted. If there had been a bit more gore, I believe the film would have been a near perfect slasher. As it is, the film is still highly entertaining and one I would recommend to anyone looking for something different to watch this Christmas.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

Hell House LLC

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Five years ago several people were killed in a haunted house attraction due to an unknown malfunction. The dead included many patrons as well as most of the crew. Now a documentary team is trying to put the pieces together and discover the truth of what happened that night. When a survivor of that night comes forward with new information the documentary crew decides to go back to the site of the haunted attraction. They soon discover some doors are better left closed.

Hell House LLC seems like it would be just another found footage film. While is doesn’t reinvent the subgenre, it definitely excels at it. The plot is interesting, focusing on a group of friends who build haunted house attractions for Halloween every year. This year the hotel they choose for their attraction has a very dark history. Over time things become more bizarre, leading to the disastrous opening night. This is entertaining enough, but what makes Hell House LLC stand out is the characters, the logic, and the subtle scares (most of which I will discuss later). What I will say now is that one of the most difficult things for a fount footage film to achieve is a reason for the characters to keep filming, even when things have gone horribly wrong. The filmmakers do an excellent job, for the most part, of logically explaining to the audience why the footage continues past when many people would stop. There is only one scene that leaves me with more questions than answers, but it doesn’t disrupt the filming logic.

I had the opportunity to watch this film twice in a very short period of time. The first time I watched it on a streaming service per a recommendation. The second time I watched it after receiving an email from the filmmakers with a screener for the extended director’s cut version. When watching the director’s cut I expected the aforementioned scene to be extended and further explained, but sadly it was not. It strongly hints that there is something more going on beyond what is shown to the audience, but we never get to learn what that is. While both versions of the film are great, I would recommend the extended director’s cut as it provides more character development and shows a bit more of what happened on opening night.

The most important thing I want to say is, despite watching the film two times in roughly two weeks, I was terrified during both viewings. A statement from writer/director Stephen Cognetti said, “My intent for Hell House LLC was to produce a slow burn of subtle, yet building scares. I have never been a fan of jump scares or music aided scares. My favorite type of scares in horror has always been the little things caught in the background that the protagonists are not immediately aware of. I worked to embody these sensibilities in Hell House LLC.” I too prefer the subtle scares in horror films. I can say that Cognetti skillfully achieves his goal, resulting in a truly frightening film. He creates the kind of subtle scares that stick with audiences long after the film has ended.

In a found footage film it is important the characters come across as compelling, and the characters must also have great chemistry. Nothing can ruin a found footage film more quickly than an unlikable cast. Hell House LLC has a cast of characters that are very well acted, and the chemistry between them feels very genuine. While the entire cast is fantastic, there are two standout performances for me. The first is Ryan Jennifer (I’d Kill For You) as the lone female of the group, Sara. Jones perfectly conveys trying to be one of the boys, experiencing fear, and balancing that fear with trying to be supportive of the team. Gore Abrams (Let Me Make You a Martyr) also stands out as Paul. Paul is a bit of a typical stereotype often found in modern horror films; the somewhat perverted friend with a heart of gold. What makes Abrams’ performance so memorable is how genuinely funny and enjoyable his character is. Even while his character is the focus of many scares, Abrams still manages to do or say something that delivers a laugh. Honorable mention goes to the remaining actors who made up the Hell House team; Danny Bellini (The Drifter), Jared Hacker (Pact), and Adam Schneider (Dark Skies).

If you enjoy quality found footage, and find subtle scares to be the most terrifying, then Hell House LLC is the film for you. It is the perfect Halloween horror flick to watch with a group if you want a good scare. There are only a few minor details that could be altered to get rid of one or two unanswered questions. Hell House LLC has compelling characters, chilling scares, and a simple yet interesting story. As someone who has seen this film more than once I can also say the scares hold up on second viewing. If my review has convinced you to see the film, I would suggest putting in the extra effort to see the director’s cut. This film will likely become an annual Halloween must-watch.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

I Baked Him a Cake (Short)

I Baked Him a Cake - Official Poster

A young girl wakes up the morning of her father’s birthday. She is excited for him to come home from work to celebrate. As she goes through the day baking a cake for her father, the young girl notices her mother’s increasingly strange behavior. What’s even more strange is that her father is late coming home and her mother may have something to do with it.

The simplicity of I Baked Him a Cake is a strength as well as a weakness for the short film. The simple plot allows director Vanessa Ionta Wright to focus most of the short film on the palpable tension that builds as the story progresses. We, as the audience, know something terrible has happened right from the beginning, but the young daughter has no clue. The building of tension doesn’t rely on impending death, but it does rely on keeping the audience guessing as to how long the mother will let her daughter think daddy is simply running late from work. While this is a very interesting and effective method of storytelling, I found myself with a few too many lingering questions. I enjoy when short films leave loose ends, making you want either a short sequel or for the short to be expanded into a feature length film, but this short left things a bit too open.

I Baked Him a Cake has two actors total, which leaves little to no room for error. If someone isn’t performing well it will stand out like a sore thumb. Luckily, the performances in this short are very well done and stand out for all the right reasons. Fleece (The Perfect Murder) delivers an unnerving performance as the mother. I got an unexpected laugh from her when she explains away a substantial amount of blood by claiming it is due to “that time of the month.” What makes it so funny is her deadpan delivery of the line. Throughout the short, Fleece makes the mother seem more and more disturbing as she continually lies to her daughter while disposing of the evidence of what truly happened to her husband. Lillian Gray (Leshyapa) also goes a great job as the daughter, Lenora. Lenora is at the age where she is old enough to know something isn’t quite right, but young enough to believe what her mother tells her. Gray portrays that delicate balance very well.

A strong aspect of this short film is how visually interesting it is. This visual interest isn’t achieved with any kind of practical or CGI effects, like many films in this genre. Instead it is the simple use of darkness and light that makes many of the scenes appear quite beautiful. Each scene is primarily in darkness, giving the home a dark and gritty appearance. Yet there is also a place of brighter, usually natural light (i.e. candlelight or light coming in through a window) that draws your eye where the filmmakers want it to go. The cinematography, combined with the use of shadow and light, adds to the otherwise simplistic short film.

I Baked Him a Cake is a compelling character study that expertly plays with light to catch the eye. The performances from the two leads carry the short, and the overall look of film is enough to hold my interest. While the short does check most of the boxes I looked for, such as working as a short film while still making me want more, I can’t help but feel I am left wanting a bit too much. There are just a few too many questions and not enough answers throughout the plot. Despite that, I Baked Him a Cake still brings something original by shifting the focus from death to the aftermath.

OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5 (short film scale)