Supernatural/Occult

Doctor Sleep

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It’s been many years since the events at the Overlook Hotel. Dan Torrence is all grown up and battling his own demons. He meets a young girl named Abra, who also “shines.” When a deadly cult called The True Knot comes for Abra and her power, it is up to Dan to protect her.

Writer and director Mike Flanagan (Gerald’s Game, Haunting of Hill House) once again shows he is a master of storytelling and filmmaking. To be clear, I have not read either The Shining or Doctor Sleep, so I do not have the context other Stephen King fans have. From what I understand, Flanagan’s adaptation of King’s Doctor Sleep honors King’s work while also incorporating elements of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, which many horror fans cherish. Even more amazing is how Flanagan still creates a film with his unique stamp on it. Both in terms of stylistic choices and the emotional content, there is no mistaking Flanagan’s work.

Doctor Sleep expands upon the mythology fans know and love from The Shining. We get to see a bit of what happened to Danny and Wendy not long after the events at the Overlook Hotel. Then there are multiple time jumps to when Dan is an adult. It is then that the audience is introduced to Abra and her powers. We also meet The True Knot cult of individuals with powers who want to be immortal. The leader of the group, Rose the Hat, is as beautiful as she is dangerous. When Rose sense’s Abra’s power, she becomes determined to find the girl. Much of the mythos of this film focuses on Dan, Abra, and Rose. Dan and Abra help the audience learn a bit more about the shining and those who have abilities. Rose introduces a new set of individuals with different abilities who essentially want to eat those who shine. The film even expands on the mythos of the Overlook Hotel and the permanent inhabitants Dan encountered as a child.

One thing that was arguably lacking in Kubrick’s film that Flanagan’s film has in abundance is heart. This is most evident in how Doctor Sleep deals with trauma and addiction. Between the burden of his shining and the horrific events he experienced at the Overlook, it’s no wonder Dan has many demons. He grows up suppressing his gift and compartmentalizing the trauma of his past, which leads to alcohol addiction. We meet adult Dan at his worst and when he begins his quest to overcome his addiction, but it isn’t until he meets Abra that he is truly forced to take a hard look at himself and his past. While the supernatural aspects of the film are likely what will bring in audiences, as well as King’s name, it’s Dan’s character arc and his struggle for sobriety, acceptance, and self-discovery that will stick with you long after the film has ended.

The entire cast of Doctor Sleep is perfect in their roles. There are so many superb performances it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few standouts. Ewan McGregor (Moulin Rouge, Trainspotting) stars as adult Dan Torrence. We all know McGregor is a phenomenal actor, but this might be one of his best performances yet. The way he conveys Dan’s struggles with his past as well as his battle with alcohol is stunning. There is one specific scene at the climax of the film where those struggles culminate in a truly heart-wrenching way and McGregor gives the scene his all. Young newcomer, Kyliegh Curran (I Can I Will I Did), absolutely dazzles as Abra. In many ways she is the polar opposite of Dan. She cherishes and practices her power, although she does try to hide it from her parents. Abra is such a strong character despite her young age and Curran is perfect in the role. Curran and McGregor play off of each other very well and create a striking juxtaposition between Abra and Dan. Then there is Rebecca Ferguson (Life, Mission: Impossible – Fallout) as Rose the Hat. As soon as she is on screen Ferguson has a powerful presence that demands your attention and fills the screen. Rose can appear disarmingly warm and kind, but she quickly shows her darker, cutthroat side. Ferguson makes Rose the Hat an iconic and memorable villain. As I said, many of the other actors deliver great performances, but there are too many for me to give honorable mention to. Suffice it to say, everyone is amazing.

Doctor Sleep does a great job of being it’s own story separate from the events from The Shining. Yet it is vital to note the scenes Flanagan recreated from Kubrick’s film and the absolutely perfect casting for those recreations. With the exception of a couple exterior shots, each scene from The Shining is an exact replica with new actors. The fact that Flanagan was able to so perfectly recreate these scenes is already astounding, but it’s the casting that stands out. Some of this amazing casting I will keep a secret for those who are planning on seeing the film as it relates to a pivotal scene in the film. A few casting choices I will talk about are Alex Essoe (Starry Eyes, Tales of Halloween) as Wendy Torrence, Roger Dale Floyd (The Painter, Kronos) as young Danny Torrence, and Carl Lumbly (A Cure for Wellness, Men of Honor) as Dick Hallorann. Each of these actors perfectly embodies the characters from The Shining from the way they talk to their mannerisms without feeling like a caricature. At times it’s even difficult to tell the difference between these actors and the ones they are imitating. It’s not only a testament to their talents, but it also serves as evidence that casting great actors who look like characters/actors is much more effective than implanting a CGI replica of the original actor.

Every single artistic aspect of Doctor Sleep is meticulous and purposeful to create a gorgeous film. Right away audiences will likely notice the stunning set design and cinematography. From the recreations of Kubrick’s film to the entirely new world created throughout the film, there is so much beauty filling the screen that it is impossible to look away. It all speaks to Flanagan’s signature style, even down to the overall green coloration of much of the film. There is also a fantastic mix of practical and CGI effects. Most of the physical wounds and injuries are done with very realistic practical effects. The CGI is most evident when powers are being used and in various dream-like sequences. The dream-like sequences also utilize forced perspective and rooms that move and turn to create striking imagery.

Doctor Sleep is a stunning film that seamlessly combines the supernatural with trauma and addiction. Flanagan yet again delivers a film that is as visually striking as it is unsettling and emotional. He clearly took great care to blend King and Kubrick’s work, while still making the film his own. The storytelling, the expansion of the mythology, and the beauty of the film are incredibly well done. McGregor, Curran, and Ferguson, along with the rest of the cast, deliver striking performances fans won’t soon forget. Honestly the only negative thing I can say about the film relates to a couple characters who die, but I can’t get into details without giving things away. Luckily, the rest of the film is practically flawless. I can honestly say Doctor Sleep is now one of my top 5 favorite Stephen King adaptations, if not my favorite. This is a film fans need to experience on the big screen, so be sure to catch it in theaters while you can.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire

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After several years, the Abaddon Hotel will once again be open to the public. This time, famed interactive-show director Russell Wynn is putting on a live performance in the hotel called Insomnia. Wynn invites the new Morning Mysteries crew to come and document the making of his latest show. What they film is even more horrors in this cursed building.

Like the first two films, Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire was written and directed by Stephen Cognetti. The film is a combination of found footage and mocumentary style. As with those first two films, this one takes place in the Abaddon Hotel. Despite the numerous reports of strange happenings, disappearances, and deaths, a new crew is entering the hotel. In the second film we met the new host and crew of Morning Mysteries, the TV segment whose previous host and crew were in the second film. They are sent to the Abaddon Hotel to document the making of a live interactive performance called Insomnia. At first everything seems normal, but then increasingly frightening things happen. What’s worse is the creator of this show, Russell Wynn, seems to know more that he lets on and is determined to finish the show.

Cognetti’s final installment of the Hell House LLC franchise does a fantastic job of upping the stakes. It comes to new revelations fans didn’t already know and brings the tale of the Abaddon Hotel to a close. In some respects, the final act of this film is a bit too neat in how it brings all the various storylines to a end. There is such a thing in horror as too much closure. The very last scene of the film does a nice job of bringing everything full-circle, but it is still too tidy.

One thing Cognetti has been incredibly successful with in all three films is capturing the feel of walking through a haunt. There is a near constant feeling of tension just from the eerie set of the hotel itself. As we follow the camera walking from room to room, you never know if something is going to jump out at you from around the corner. Cognetti also knows how to use subtlety to his favor. The first scares are small and involve a creepy sound or a slight movement of something that shouldn’t move. From there the scares build, often feeling reminiscent of a true haunt when you aren’t sure if something is a prop or a person until they finally jump out and scare you to death.

The filmmakers also wisely chose to go for very simplistic makeup, also much like a haunt. Lake of Fire includes some familiar spooky faces including a creepy woman who likes to lurk in one of the upstairs rooms and the clown mannequin who likes to move around on his own. These chilling characters are created with very minimalistic makeup and masks. The climax of the film utilizes some CGI effects. Much like with the previous films, I don’t think the CGI works as well in this found-footage, lower budget film, but it doesn’t detract from the overall appeal of the film.

Luckily, Lake of Fire continues the trend of great performances for the Hell House LLC films. The entire ensemble cast is fantastic and conveys fear quite well. Gabriel Chytry (Altruism) plays the creator of Insomnia, Russell Wynn. Russell is an interesting character as he clearly is hiding things from the crew. Chytry balances the character between appearing to have sinister intentions and simply being an eccentric director. Elizabeth Vermilyea stars as Morning Mysteries host, Vanessa, in her first feature film role. Vermilyea’s portrayal of Vanessa also plays a balancing act as she attempts to prove herself in a male-dominated industry while also doing what’s best for the people around her rather than her career. Other notable performances come from Sam Kazzi (Law & Order: SVU), Bridgid Abrams (Contributions), Leo DeFriend (Mordeo), Jordan Kaplan (My Alien Girlfriend), and Scott Richey (Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell).

Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire is a fitting end to a trilogy that perfectly captures the feel of walking through a Halloween haunt. Cognetti created an intricate a complicated plot spanning three films, each one raising the stakes and revealing terrifying new information. While the end of the film attempts to tie all the various subplots up too cleanly, the franchise still ends in an impactful way. Of all the films, Lake of Fire may be the least scary, but there are still plenty of spine-chilling moments that will keep you up at night. Along with great performances and creepy effects, it’s hard to escape the thrilling feeling of walking through a haunted attraction. Lake of Fire rounds out a great trilogy that is a must-watch for the Halloween season.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

Candy Corn

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It’s almost Halloween. A group of local punks decide to honor their longtime tradition of pranking the local outcast while he’s at work at the visiting freak show. When the guys take things too far, a ritual is used to bring him back to life. Now he will take his revenge on this sleepy little town.

For me, Candy Corn has been one of my most anticipated horror films of the year.  The film was written, directed, edited, and produced by Josh Hasty (Honeyspider, In Hell Everybody Loves Popcorn: The Making of 31).  Immediately we are introduced to the group of young adults who just love hazing the local outcast, Jacob. The three young men are your typical small-town jerks who get pleasure out of other people’s misery. When they accidentally kill Jacob, it is Jacob’s employer, Dr. Death, who comes up with a plan to bring him back. This introduction to the various characters automatically makes the audience despise the locals and sympathize with Jacob and the freaks. It also plays well to those in the audience who have ever been bullied. When it comes down to it, that’s all those who tormented Jacob really are; a bunch of bullies. Watching them get torn apart is incredibly satisfying.

The film is one part supernatural and one part slasher resulting in a thrilling and bloody ride. This blend of horror subgenres helps to make Candy Corn the perfect fall film. It captures the essence of what horror fans love about this time of year. Part of that Halloween feel also comes from the filmmakers who clearly influenced Hasty in this film. The most obvious influences are John Carpenter and Rob Zombie. From the filming style to the sets to the characters and the music, Hasty shows his passion for the great filmmakers who came before him while still creating a film that is entirely his own. Even though those influences are clearly felt, Hasty still creates a really entertaining and unique mythos around the freak show and the ritual Dr. Death. Hasty wisely leaves some of the mythology vague, yet gives the audience enough to follow what’s happening, which leaves the film open to sequels that expand on that mythos.

It is clear that each artistic decision made by Hasty was chosen to make Candy Corn a new Halloween classic. From the first frames the look of the film transports the audience back to the 70’s. While it isn’t explicitly stated, it is clear from the wardrobe, the cars, and the technology used in the film. Even the somewhat gritty look of the film and the slightly washed-out colors harken back to that era of filmmaking. This time period and look also feel very reminiscent of Carpenter’s and Zombie’s films. One thing that doesn’t work quite as well is the use of freeze frames and removing audio, except for the music, in scenes where people are killed. This is similar to some of Zombie’s filming methods. It looked interesting in a couple scenes, but it is a bit overused throughout the film.

Other artistic elements help to make the film exciting, gory, and fun. The mask worn by Jacob when he returns to exact his revenge is absolutely terrifying. It almost looks as if a jack o’lantern was combined with the Michael Myers mask to create something out of a nightmare. Candy Corn also primarily sticks to gruesome practical effects for the kills. Each kill has a high level of brutality created with the practical effects and minor CGI enhancement, mostly utilized to add extra blood spatter. Then of course there is a fantastic score composed by both Hasty and Michael Booker. It is ominous, yet has a lightness to it that helps to build both suspense and excitement. Much like the plot, the score simply feels like the Halloween season.

This indie film has several faces horror fans know and love. Courtney Gains (Children of the Corn, The Funhouse Massacre) stars as the local sheriff, Sam Bramford. The sheriff tries his best to keep the peace between the local punks and the visiting freak show, but when the bodies start piling up he’s left with no choice. Acting opposite him is Pancho Moler (31, American Fright Fest) as Dr. Death, leader of the freak show. While on the surface he seems stern and mistrusting of outsiders, it is also clear that he cares deeply for his freaks and is sick of seeing them treated like second-class citizens. These two characters play off each other quite well because neither of them is purely good or bad, they simply want to protect the ones they care for. Unfortunately, they care for people on opposing sides. Other notable horror favorites are Tony Todd (Candyman, Final Destination), PJ Soles (Halloween [1978], Carrie), and Sky Elobar (The Greasy Strangler, The Rocker).

When it comes to the group of punks who attack Jacob, the performances are well done, but the casting is a bit confusing. The group is played by Cy Creamer in his feature film debut as Steve, Madison Russ (Junkie) as Carol, Caleb Thomas (The Terror of Hallow’s Eve) as Bobby, and Jimothy Beckholt (Corky and Bob Get a Job!) as Mike. They all do a great job of making the audience dislike their characters, which in turn makes it more fun to watch them die. The issue is it is difficult to figure out what age these kids are supposed to be. Most of the actors could pass for teenagers or very early 20’s, yet Beckholt appears to be older than the rest of the group. It may be a small detail, but in a genre where it’s typically either teens or college kids being slaughtered, that missing piece stood out.

Candy Corn is a love letter to Halloween and classic slashers of the 70’s and 80’s that is sure to be a holiday favorite for horror fans. Hasty’s passion for filmmaking and his influences are clearly felt. It perfectly balances the line between homage and originality resulting in a violent thrill ride with a unique mythology. The cast of horror fan favorites and newcomers all do a fantastic job. Then of course the film looks like it came straight from the 70’s, has gory practical effects, and the score is so fantastic that I can’t wait to buy it. You’ll want to watch the film now and then again for Halloween.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

Tigers Are Not Afraid

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Drug wars have turned cities into ghost towns. They have also left children without parents or homes, forced to fend for themselves on the streets. After Estrella’s mother doesn’t come home, she is left to seek shelter and help from a group of orphaned boys. Their fight for survival on those unkind streets takes the children down a twisted fairy tale complete with wishes, zombies, and tigers.

Written and directed by Issa López (Casi Divas, Ladies’ Night), this film is one of the most talked about indie horror films of the year. Much of the talk about Tigers Are Not Afraid is thanks to legendary director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water) singing its praises. Much like traditional fairy tales, the film opens by introducing us to the lovely “princess” in the form of Estrella. Everything that happens in the film is either shown from her point of view or the leader of the orphaned boys, Shine. They are all doing their best to survive on the streets while avoiding the cartels. At the same time, Estrella is haunted by the memory of her mother and the weight of three chalk pieces that may or may not be able to grant her wishes. She bears this weight all on her own since the other orphans don’t see the things Estrella sees. This childlike point of view allows for the reality of the brutal crimes happening all around the kids to seamlessly blend together with the fantastical elements. The result is an incredibly unique story that is as unsettling as it is beautiful.

All of the main characters in Tigers Are Not Afraid are children, and each of them is a joy to watch on the screen. Young leading lady, Paola Lara, makes her feature film debut as Estrella. When Estrella joins the group of boys, she immediately takes on a maternal role, yet her longing for her mother keeps her trapped in the twisted fairy tale. Lara manages to show a certain amount of vulnerability, while also showing how Estrella is able to adapt in order to survive. Also making his feature film debut is Juan Ramón López as Shine. His performance, for me, is the stand-out of the film. Poor Shine is both emotionally and physically scarred from losing his mother to the cartels. Shine takes care of the other boys and takes on a tough-guy persona, but López shows the ocean of emotional depth hidden just beneath the surface of that persona. Both Lara and López are great on screen together, naturally taking on the roles of mother and father to the other boys despite being kids themselves. The other children in their small band of orphans are also a joy to watch, including Hanssel Casillas (Sitiados: México) as Tucsi, Rodrigo Cortés as Pop, and Nery Arredondo as the adorable Morrito.

The film is a feast for both your eyes and ears. As the film begins, the sets are slightly run down apartments and makeshift rooftop shelters. Then the fairy tale element is played up more throughout the film when the kids discover what appears to be an abandoned old mansion. What might be the most surprising artistic element of Tigers Are Not Afraid is the superb use of CGI. For the most part, the effects themselves are subtle, but because they all relate to the fantasy in the plot the effects still stand out. There are dragons, sentient blood trails, tigers, and more all done with gorgeous CGI. Then of course the plot is emphasized by the melancholy and captivating score by composer Vince Pope (Misfits, Black Mirror). The film is stunning on how well it combines the horrors of life and nightmares with the hope of children and their fairy tales.

Tigers Are Not Afraid is a uniquely dark fairy tale rooted in the real life horrors experienced by children. López has shown the world she can not only write a compelling film, but she can also direct and bring it to life in a way that is simultaneously haunting and heartbreaking. It is the kind of film that can make the audience feel the full gamut of emotions through effective storytelling and fantastical visuals, not to mention the amazing performances from the entire cast of young actors. One thing I will warn people of is that this Mexican film is in Spanish and is subtitled. While this should never deter a viewer from watching a film, I know in this day and age many people shy away from subtitled films. Tigers Are Not Afraid is the kind of film that will be noticed by a wide range of audiences, not just horror fans. I can’t wait to see what López does next.

OVERALL RATING: 9.5/10

IT Chapter Two

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It’s been twenty-seven years since the Losers’ Club thought they defeated Pennywise the clown. Now, he’s back and taking children again. The friends are called back to reunite in Derry to try to stop It once again. As they remember their past, the old friends will have to face the monster head-on to break the cycle and save the children of Derry… and themselves.

The second half of Stephen King’s legendary novel is yet again brought to life in IT Chapter Two by screenwriter Gary Dauberman (The Nun, Annabelle Comes Home) and director Andy Muschietti (IT [2017], Mama). The film begins right where the previous film left off, with the Losers’ Club together in the field right after defeating Pennywise for the first time. After seeing a sign from Pennywise, the only person in the group to have stayed in Derry, Mike, calls his friends and reminds them of the promise they made all those years ago. From there the film weaves back and forth between the past and the present as each member of the group is called and brought home, then as their long-forgotten childhood memories finally come back to them. The way the plot is integrated with past and present is done perfectly in a way that still allows the film to naturally flow and move forward.

Dauberman and Muschietti do a fantastic job of including the important scenes and aspects of the source material, while still giving audiences something new. It allows the filmmakers to capture the spirit and feel of the book, even if it is not an exact adaptation. In several scenes, fans of the book will recognize what is happening. Yet there are still many exciting new things that did not come from King’s novel. Some of the changes were entire scenes, while others were more subtle, but impactful changes in the characters. One specific aspect of the novel I know many people were curious to see in the film is the “ritual of Chud.” Without giving away too many details, they do reference the ritual and have it in the film, but it might not be quite what fans of the novel expect. The climax of the film is thrilling, frightening, and heartbreaking. It pays homage to King’s work, but changes things up in order to give fans something unexpected and new.

Considering the IT Chapter Two has an almost three hour run time, somehow the film still felt like it went by very quickly. This is great because it means that, despite the long run time and everything they are able to include, the film is exciting and intriguing enough to keep the audience interested. Yet it also almost feels like many aspects of the film were simply brushed over instead of giving them the more in-depth look they deserved. Considering the length of the source material and how much the filmmakers were able to include in the film, I still applaud this cinematic achievement.

Fans of the first film were likely blown away by the kids’ performances. The adults in IT Chapter Two are no different. Of course, everyone knew James McAvoy (Split, Dark Phoenix) and Jessica Chastain (Mama, Molly’s Game) as adult Bill and Bev would be phenomenal. Jay Ryan (Beauty and the Beast, Terra Nova), who plays adult Ben, is one of the least known actors in the Losers’ Club. What makes his performance so great is how much he is able to convey more than words can with just a look, even when the camera is focused on other characters. James Ransone (Insidious, Generation Kill) is perfect casting as adult Eddie and comes across as the same person as the child we saw in the first film. One of the most surprising performances comes from Isaiah Mustafa (Chuck, Shadowhunters) as adult Mike. He is unrecognizeable as the “Old Spice guy” in this role. Not only does his character get more spotlight than his younger counterpart in the first film, but Mustafa is clearly up to the task and shines in the role. All of these actors are fantastic, but Bill Hader (Trainwreck, Barry) as adult Richie will be the one audiences remember most. Hader is absolutely hilarious, adding some great laugh out loud moments in the middle of the most tense moments. Yet what makes his performance so amazing is the emotional depth he conveys beyond the humor on the surface. Last, but not least, it is important to mention Bill Skarsgård (Castle Rock, IT [2017]) as Pennywise the clown. Just like his performance in the first film, Skarsgård manages to play what is likely the most terrifying clown in movie history.

Between practical effects, CGI, sets, and Easter eggs, IT Chapter Two has many stunning visual elements. As with the first film, the many terrifying creatures and characters IT appears as are a fantastic combination of practical effects and CGI enhancement. The two modes combine seamlessly to create some of the most shocking, disgusting, and frightening imagery. The filmmakers utilize familiar sets from the first film, such as the barrens and the house on Niebolt Street, but also incorporate gorgeous new ones. Some of the most memorable sets are the elegant old inn and the place deep underground where the final showdown takes place. The film also utilizes some really fascinating transitions. These transitions allow the filmmakers to maneuver from the past to the present and back again in unique, beautiful ways.

One of the most intriguing visual aspects of IT Chapter Two is the many Easter eggs hidden throughout. Some of these are characters in the film with small cameos, including Muschietti himself and the actor who played young Ben in the 1990 IT miniseries, Brandon Crane, and one cameo I will leave as a surprise. Other Easter eggs are references to the 1990 IT and other popular films from the 80’s. One especially memorable moment is a creature that is a combination of practical and CGI effects that appears to be an Easter egg or homage to John Carpenter’s The Thing.

IT Chapter Two is a thrilling and heart-felt conclusion to the story of our favorite losers that captures the feel of King’s novel while still giving us something exciting and new. Muschietti and Dauberman clearly know how to tell a compelling story that has a strong emotional core, amazing sets and effects, tons of scares, and even more laughs. They also honor King’s work by creating this cultural phenomenon of a film for horror fans and non-horror fans alike to adore. Every single actor embodies the characters they play in a way that reminds us of the children from the first film. And, of course, Skarsgård still brings the terror with his unique and terrifying portrayal of Pennywise. Purists who want an exact adaptation of the book or fans who are devoted to the miniseries may not be thrilled by the film, but this film is undoubtedly one of the horror highlights of 2019.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

Midsommar

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Dani has experienced recent emotional trauma. When her boyfriend invites her on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to a solstice festival in Sweden, she thinks it is just what she needs. The sunny, idyllic location is the perfect setting for the festivities. Yet the rituals become increasingly bizarre and violent, threatening the lives of Dani and her friends.

Writer and director Ari Aster (Hereditary) has created another work of art with his sophomore feature film, Midsommar. This film takes on a different kind of cult that focuses more on the pastoral horror seen in films like The Wicker Man. The audience is first introduced to Dani as she is going through a very traumatic time in her life. She gets roped into what was supposed to be a guys’ trip to Sweden for a festival that only happens every 90 years in a remote village. The insanity that ensues is beautiful, disturbing, sometimes humorous, and everything in-between. Aster clearly has an affinity for paganism and cults and he takes great care in creating an intricate mythology.

There are two aspects of the film that give it quite a bit of intensity. The first is Dani’s emotional issues, which are exacerbated by the tension in her relationship with her boyfriend and the events of the festival. She is constantly at odds with her own emotions. Even when everything is falling apart around Dani, she tries her best to hold herself and her relationship together. The second is with the festival itself. While the events become increasingly horrific, there is an even deeper dilemma that arises with the rituals. Many of the outsiders who are in Sweden for the festival are anthropology students. They show how there is a delicate balance when observing different cultures. Sometimes what you see is horrifying to you, but from that culture’s perspective it is normal. I studied anthropology in college, so I can understand the moral quandary that comes from wanting to be respectful of different customs and cultures, even when faced with something shocking. The way the rituals in Midsommar gradually become more strange and violent allows for tension to build while also conveying the increasing difficulty the outsiders have in deciding when things have gone too far.

One of the most surprising plot points of Midsommar is the underlying theme of home and family. Home can mean different things to different people, but the common thread is usually having a place to belong and being around people who care about you. Much of Dani’s journey relates to family and the need to feel as if she’s at home. The character arc Aster creates in relation to Dani’s quest for that feeling of home is compelling and ends in an entirely satisfying way.

On top of the intricate and suspenseful story, Midsommar also has powerful performances. Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth, Malevolent) stars as Dani. Pugh makes Dani a fascinating and sympathetic character. Her portrayal especially shines when she conveys Dani’s emotional trauma in a way that is absolutely gut-wrenching. Jack Reynor (Free Fire, Sing Street) plays Dani’s boyfriend, Christian. In many ways Christian is the polar opposite of Dani. Reynor manages to make Christian a very unlikeable character, especially when he is gaslighting Dani and just generally being a terrible person. Normally it is important for couples in film to have great on-screen chemistry. That isn’t the case for Pugh and Reynor as their lack of chemistry only helps to tell the story of their unfortunate relationship.

After only two films, Aster has managed to create a signature style for his films. His films always have gorgeous production design, unique transitions between scenes, and he always has a simple signature sound used throughout the film. Most horror films are shrouded in darkness, yet Midsommar takes the opposite approach. Almost the entire film is drenched in sunlight and has vibrant colors. Not only does the outdoor setting have this appearance, but the various buildings in the Swedish village have this same quality. This is a bold choice that pays off because of how well Aster makes even the most cheery-looking place seem sinister. The cinematography helps to make the production design and the transitions even more eye-catching. In Hereditary, Aster used a slight clucking noise made by one of the stars to build tension throughout the film. Aster repeated this method in Midsommar, only this time it is with a strange, quick breath out and in. This sound is haunting and memorable. It takes the most innocuous sound and gives it an edge that can insight terror.

Midsommar brings terror into the light in this shocking pastoral horror film. Aster perfectly exemplifies his talents as both a director and a screenwriter, making it clear that he is a true master of horror. The film creates a fascinating pagan mythology set in a remote village, then builds on that mythology in disturbing ways. As if that isn’t compelling enough, Aster also uses Dani’s character to convey trauma and the human need for home. Pugh’s portrayal of Dani is haunting and will stick with audiences. There will likely be audience members who don’t like this film because it isn’t scary enough for them, because of the brightly lit setting, or because of some of the more strange rituals. I believe the film is a work of art and I can’t wait to see what Aster comes up with next.

OVERALL RATING: 9.5/10

The Funeral

funeral

Zhong Tonghiu, a young model with a tragic past, receives an invitation to her aunt’s funeral. Even though this aunt isn’t a blood relative, and she hasn’t seen her in years, Tonghiu still decides to go. When she arrives at her aunt’s remote mansion, strange things begin to happen. Something sinister is happening and time is running out for Tonghiu.

The Portland Horror Film Festival was lucky enough to get The Funeral for its world premiere. The film comes all the way from China and was written and directed by Yujie Qiu in her directorial debut. With an atmospheric slow-burn style, The Funeral builds suspense as a strange mystery is unraveled. When we first meet Tonghiu it is when she experiences her mother’s suicide as a child. This leads to a lifetime of nightmares that only become worse when she goes to her late aunt’s mansion. Everyone in the remote mansion seems to have some sinister motive. The tension gradually grows until the climax of the film as Tonghiu tries to discover the truth.

While The Funeral tells a compelling story, the ending takes away from the overall impact of the film. I won’t go into too much detail of the actual ending, but I will say the ending makes sense after hearing the star of the film discuss it at PHFF. Leading lady Kunjue Li traveled all the way from London to be at the world premiere of The Funeral. The way she explained it to the audience after the film, there were multiple different endings filmed and she wasn’t aware of which one was chosen until she watched it with the rest of us. The ending chosen isn’t necessarily the best option to serve the plot, but Kunjue described the many rules and regulations involved in Chinese film. There is so much censorship that it is difficult to make any film, let alone a horror film. With this in mind the end of the film makes sense, but I can’t help but wonder how different the film would have turned out if it had been filmed in a country with less censorship.

Aside from the eerie story being told, The Funeral also has fantastic performances from the small cast. Everyone does a great job adding to the tension of the film, but there is one performance that truly makes this film stand out. Leading actress, Kunjue Li (Peaky Blinders, One Child) is completely entrancing as Tonghiu. She has a gentle innocence about her, but there is strength deep within that comes out as Tonghiu’s life is threatened. Kunjue even won the “Masque Rouge Award” at this year’s PHFF, which is given to the actor or actress the festival directors believe delivered the best performance.

Much of the eeriness of this film comes not only from the plot, but from the look of the film. The film is primarily set in a gorgeous yet dark mansion secluded in the countryside. What is especially impressive about the set design is that, whether in darkness or in bright light, there is an edge that implies something is wrong. There are also lovely visuals for the various dream sequences. Many of these scenes are filmed with a very soft focus, making it simple to determine what is reality and what is a dream.

The Funeral manages to be a compelling and chilling film, despite the lengths it has to go through to get through censorship regulations. The backflips Yuje clearly went through to make this film in China only proves her talent as a writer and director. She created a film that is fascinating, has great performances, and is beautiful to look at. Unfortunately the ending of the film suffers from having to follow China’s film censorship. Without the context of that censorship, I might not have appreciated the film quite as much. I would be curious to know what some of the other endings were and I hope audiences outside of China will get the opportunity to see them.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10