Month: January 2020

Bliss

bliss

A talented painter is experiencing a creative block as an important deadline approaches. In a desperate attempt to break that block, she seeks out drugs to spark her creativity. Instead she sparks a twisted journey filled with drugs, sex, hallucinations, and blood.

Writer and director Joe Begos (Almost Human, The Mind’s Eye) brings his distinctive flare in his latest horror film, Bliss. Much like his previous films, Begos creates a stunning, 80’s-inspired film that relies heavily on complex characters, a unique plot, fantastic practical effects, and brilliant music. Bliss is a film that takes a unique look at vampirism, addiction, and obsession. The film follows Dezzy, the talented young artist who is on a tight deadline to finish her next big piece or else she will go broke. After a long time with no real progress on her latest work, she decides it’s time to hit up an old friend who can provide her with drugs that will hopefully bring artistic inspiration. After a night of drugs, drinking, and partying, Dezzy’s entire world spins out of control. Between manic episodes and drug-induced stupors, it becomes more and more difficult for her to separate what is real and what isn’t.

When it comes to vampire films, it is easy to make the connection between the need for blood and addiction. Yet I feel like Bliss really conveys the gritty, less glamorous side in a truly compelling way. This is likely because audiences see Dezzy using drugs at the same time as she experiences her more eccentric addiction. Whether this is related to the drugs she’s taking or a chance encounter with an old friend, she can’t be sure. Dezzy is obsessed with finishing her masterpiece, which makes her more vulnerable to both the drugs and the need for blood. There is a disturbing co-dependence that develops between her need for drugs and blood; the physical effects not only visible in Dezzy herself, but also on the canvas. There are a few moments where the lack of mythos around these vampires can make the rules around their existence a bit confusing. It is only really noticeable in a few scenes, but the focus is more on the addictive nature of vampirism which distracts from those moments.

Fans of Begos’ films are sure to see a number of familiar faces from his previous films. The one face in Bliss that might not be as familiar is Dora Madison (All That We Destroy, Chicago Fire) starring as Dezzy. It is impossible not to fall in love with Madison in this role. Dezzy is a bit of a mess and if it wasn’t for her artwork, she would just be another jobless hack spending what money she does have on drugs and booze. Yet, between the way Begos wrote the character and the way Madison portrays her, Dezzy is an enigmatic character audiences can empathize with as she battles addiction and her own obsession to finish her art. This is truly Dezzy’s story, but another strong female performance comes from Tru Collins (Awkward, The Price) as Courtney. She has many of the same demons as Dezzy, but she’s much more wild and unpredictable. Collins plays the character in a way where her intentions are always hidden until the last minute, making her quite unpredictable. Fans will also be pleased to see indie film favorites such as Jeremy Gardner (The Battery, The Mind’s Eye), Graham Skipper (The Mind’s Eye, Beyond the Gates), and Rhys Wakefield (The Purge, You Get Me).

Bliss is a film that assaults your senses, in the best way possible. Visually, the film has a dreaminess to it. Much of the film forces the audience to look through a haze, lending a vintage look to everything. That haze is backlit by bright neon lights, drawing the viewer’s eye to specific areas on screen. To add a bit of grit to that dreaminess, each scene takes place in dirty sets spattered with drugs and drenched in blood. Begos fans have come to expect amazing practical effects in his films and Bliss doesn’t disappoint. These effects are grotesque, realistic, and add to the visual appeal of the film. Then there is the music, which ties everything together quite beautifully. Steve More (Mayhem, The Guest) composed the fantastic score. It perfectly ties together the gritty and dreamy visuals of Bliss and compels the viewer to turn the volume up.

Bliss is a gritty, blood-soaked fever dream that perfectly blends vampirism and addiction on film. Begos wows once again by bringing his unique filmmaking style to a subgenre of horror that has been done to death, yet he manages to make it feel fresh. At times the vampire mythos is too vague, but it’s clear the focus is meant to be on the addiction. The entire film feels like a manic episode and the stunning look of the film only adds to that feeling. Madison carries the film on her very capable shoulders with some horror favorites working alongside her. A rocking musical score and amazing practical effects result in a truly gorgeous film.

OVERALL SCORE: 8/10

The Marshes

marshes

A group of biologists venture out into the remote marshes of Australia. While conducting their research, they hear a legend of a murderous spirit that haunts the marshes. Soon they begin to hear strange noises and see things in the wilderness. Someone or something in the marsh is hunting them down one by one.

This thrilling Australian horror film is the feature-film debut of writer and director Roger Scott. The Marshes starts out slowly, taking its time introducing the audience to the key characters. It might be a bit too slow to start for some viewers, but I find this character development to be interesting as well as important. Not only does this time help to build an emotional connection to the characters, but it allows the filmmakers to plant various subtle clues that hint at what will eventually happen. This also allows the plot to gradually build suspense from multiple different angles. The scientists have to worry about sinister rednecks, the rugged environment, and something even more sinister. When things do finally turn sideways, the three researchers are thrown into a brutal fight for survival. There is plenty of suspense, violence, and gore to keep the audience at the edge of their seat.

I don’t want to spoil the movie, so I’m going to have to be very vague about my main complaint about the plot. The strange happenings are very small at first. These small events can almost be dismissed as figments of the character’s imagination, but as they increase with frequency and violence everything becomes more real. The problem is, there are moments where things either don’t make sense or it confuses what is real or imagined. If you pay attention to the clues I previously mentioned, then you might be able to figure out what exactly is going on. Yet you also need to have some very specific knowledge beforehand that isn’t explained in the film. It is likely knowledge much more common in Australia, but far less common to viewers from the US. I know this is incredibly vague, but the gist of what I’m getting at in the plot is intriguing and suspenseful, but might ultimately be confusing for many viewers. (Trust me, this paragraph will make more sense once you’ve seen the film)

The small cast of The Marshes delivers dynamic characters and great performances. Dafna Kronental (41, The Menkoff Method) shines as the lead researcher, Pria. She not only takes charge of the scientific study the trio is conducting, but she also takes charge when thrust into danger. Pria is bold in the face of injustice and danger. Kronental is absolutely brilliant in this role, and I want to see her in more roles in the future. Sam Delich makes his feature film debut as research student Will. Delich is very likable in this role. I like a man that can let a woman take charge, and Will has no problem taking orders from Pria. Then there is Mathew Cooper (Burning Kiss) who also does a fantastic job as Ben. This third researcher is a bit more prickly than his colleagues, but there is still something about the way Cooper plays Ben that still makes him endearing. All three actors play off of each other quite well and add to how much the audience cares about them.

As the film progresses, it gets surprisingly gory. The Marshes utilizes some truly fantastic and gruesome practical effects to create scenes some viewers will want to cover their eyes. Not only are the effects wonderfully done, but they create some disturbingly realistic gore to feast your eyes upon. The gorgeous setting and striking cinematography result in a gorgeous and haunting juxtaposition between the beauty of the scenery and the violence taking place.

The Marshes might be confusing to some viewers, but it still delivers a unique thriller. Scott shows that he knows how to craft a character driven plot filled with subtle details. This particular plot might not translate quite as well in different parts of the world because of those subtle details, but his talent is undeniable. The performances are fantastic, the imagery is gorgeous, and there is plenty of blood for the gore hounds. Definitely check this film out, and if you find yourself unsure of things by the time the credits roll, you know where to find me!

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10

Underwater

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A crew working in an underwater lab has been drilling into the darkest depths of the ocean. Something causes the facility to implode and flood, killing hundreds of crew. The few survivors will have to brave the intense pressure and darkness of the ocean floor, but there is something far worse waiting for them in the dark.

William Eubank (The Signal, Love) brings to life an all new aquatic horror film written by Brian Duffield (Insurgent, The Babysitter) and Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Tarzan). I’m a big fan of aquatic horror films, so I’ve been looking forward to this film since the first trailer dropped. I’m happy to say the film was entertaining from start to finish. Right when Underwater starts, it wastes no time getting into the excitement. The filmmakers wisely focused on two main fears: the claustrophobic fear of being in the deep ocean and the fear of the unknown beasts that lurk in those hidden depths. Arguably, the most terrifying aspect of the film is that claustrophobia. These fears drive the plot forward with survival as the main focus. It’s a very simple plot, but effective at evoking tension and anxiety in the audience.

There is nothing wrong with a simple plot in horror. Honestly, sometimes it makes a monster movie more fun when the main goal is simply surviving a beast of unknown origin. Yet Underwater hints at a more intricate plot multiple times, but those hints never come to fruition. One of the most obvious signs that there was likely a more involved plot can be seen whenever the captain is on screen. It seems clear that he knows more than he lets on and some of his actions even come across as a bit sinister, but nothing ever comes of it. Since there are multiple writers involved and a bigger studio, I can’t help but wonder what the film started out as compared to what is currently in theaters. I do enjoy the plot as is, but I would still love to see a version with a deeper conspiracy.

Genre film lovers will likely recognize many of the faces in Underwater. Kristen Stewart (Personal Shopper, Lizzie) stars as Norah. She is a highly industrious and pragmatic character. Stewart plays Norah quite well as someone who will do what she can to survive and to save her friends, but she also clearly understands her odds of survival. Another standout performance comes from John Gallagher Jr (10 Cloverfield Lane, Hush) as Smith. I’ve often thought of Gallagher as a chameleon in genre films because he does such a great job of committing to a character that he becomes almost unrecognizable. His portrayal of the lovable Smith is no different, and he is a joy to watch. Other compelling performances come from Jessica Henwick (Game of Thrones, Iron Fist) as Emily, T.J Miller (Cloverfield, Deadpool) as Paul, and Vincent Cassel (Brotherhood of the Wolf, Black Swan) as the captain.

From the creatures to the sets to the costumes, every artistic detail of Underwater is clearly very thoroughly thought out. As an aquatic creature feature, the design of these underwater beasts is very important. Underwater utilizes CGI effects to create an array of frightening deep sea creatures. The audience will see different variations of this creature. For the most part the design makes sense for the environment these beings likely thrive in, but there are certain aspects that don’t work quite as well for me. Without giving too much away, the main creatures we see are a bit too humanoid, and one of the creature reveals almost looks like it belongs in a different movie entirely. The set and costume design are fantastic. It truly feels like the actors are in a lab with thick, sturdy walls that could still implode if even one thing goes wrong that deep in the ocean. The dive suits the actors wear are also incredible. They look as if they could actually handle the pressure of being under 6 miles of water. All of these artistic choices effectively transport the audience to an anxiety-inducing, claustrophobic setting.

Underwater is a claustrophobic creature feature that is entertaining as is, but hints at a deeper conspiracy. Eubank proves he knows how to make an edge-of-your-seat film. While it is thrilling and fun to watch, I can’t help but be curious what more there was to the plot before the film hit theaters. There are clear indications of a different film than what audiences were given. I truly enjoyed the popcorn horror flick we got. I just hope we either get a director’s cut when the film is released on Blu-ray that goes deeper or a sequel that builds on the mythos and the history of these creatures. If you haven’t seen Underwater yet, I strongly urge you to make time to see it on the big screen as it should be.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

The Grudge (2020)

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When an emotional, violent crime is committed, it leaves a stain. That stain grows and festers, affecting all those who encounter it. After a woman returns from a job in Japan, a curse infects her home. It leads to a chain of horrific events and disturbing deaths. A detective will have to investigate to stop the curse and save herself from the ghosts haunting her.

January is generally considered a throw-away month for films released in theaters, especially horror films. The first horror release of January gave some horror fans hope that trend would be broken. The Grudge has a long film history beginning with the 2002 Japanese film, which spawned many sequels, and then the 2004 American remake. Now, writer and director Nicolas Pesce (Piercing, The Eyes of My Mother) has created another addition to this lucrative dynasty. Unfortunately, this latest iteration is riddled with issues. The most obvious issue is the pacing. Much like the film’s source material, the plot jumps back and forth to different periods of time beginning with the woman who brought the curse back from Japan and ending with the detective investigating it all. While audiences have seen this work, even within the frame of The Grudge films, in this version it makes the film feel like it drags. There simply isn’t enough that happens between the time jumps to keep things exciting.

For some reason, whether an artistic choice or a decision made by the producers, the film directly connects to the house fans will know from Japan. That means it also relates back to Kayako. This connection seems unnecessary in the 2020 version of The Grudge. The film ends up being a weird sequel/remake/reboot all in one. This version would have been better served to stand on its own, separate from the Japanese version. It ends up creating more confusion because there isn’t a solid mythology to build from. The first woman carried the curse back from Japan, but then it is only her ghost and the ghosts of her family we see haunting people, not the ghosts from Japan. It begs the question why the curse followed that specific woman and started a new curse in her home, but then the same thing didn’t happen to those cursed in the states. While there are many plots points that are not fully developed and various plot holes, this mythos, or lack thereof, is the most apparent.

Fans of this franchise will likely go into The Grudge expecting plenty of tension and scares. People who know me will likely know I am a huge wimp and get scared easily. If this gives any indication, I was not scared at all during the entire runtime of this film. The film relies too heavily on unearned jump scares that don’t manage to cause much jumping, and it fails to build the tension between scares as well. The Grudge also relies too much on grotesque images to attempt to elicit fear. While these practical effects to create the horrifying ghosts are beautifully done, they also come across as more of a gimmick to achieve an R rating, rather than something vital to the plot.

While the character development is lacking, the most successful aspect of The Grudge is the performances. The standout performance by far is horror fan-favorite Lin Shaye (Insidious, Room For Rent) as Faith Matheson. Faith is a woman whose physical and mental health are on a swift decline. Her interactions with the curse are somewhat unique from others, and Shaye delivers a spine-chilling performance in this role. The other two performances that are enjoyable come from John Cho (Searching, Star Trek) and Andrea Riseborough (Mandy, Oblivian). Both Cho and Riseborough do well in their respective roles, although the characters are not very well written so they come across as flat. They do the best they can with what they are given.

The Grudge lacks a solid mythos to build a terrifying story, resulting in a slow and lackluster start to 2020. Based on Pesce’s body of working leading up to this film, which consists of some great films, one can only assume he was restricted by producers. The film moves along far too slowly, fails to create the scares fans expect, and contains one plot hole after another. My one hope is that this doesn’t keep Pesce from continuing to make the kinds of films we all know he’s capable of.

OVERALL RATING: 3/10