Thriller/Suspense

Z

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An 8-year-old boy gets an imaginary friend. What begins as a simple childhood fantasy quickly turns sinister. The boy is acting out and blaming his imaginary friend. As the family’s life is turned upside down as they are terrorized by this invisible force, they will have to turn to the past in order to survive the present.

Z is the sophomore feature film of director Brandon Christensen (Still/Born), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Colin Minihan (Grave Encounters, What Keeps You Alive). Christensen and Minihan’s combined efforts manage to bring viewers a bit of the familiar along with some thrilling new bits. These days, horror films about imaginary friends seem to be increasingly common. The filmmakers take a bit of time introducing this imaginary friend, allowing time to establish the family unit and their dynamics first. When we do finally meet Z, the imaginary friend, it is just whispers and mentions of him as the son plays. Yet it doesn’t take very long for those whispers to turn to behavior issues and then full-blown terror. This gradual increase in suspense allows for some brilliant and terrifying scenes that are sure to haunt viewers. Z even takes the time to tackle many issues including the horrors of parenting, emotionally and physically abusive relationships, and suicide (take this also as a trigger warning for anyone who has difficulty watching these topics on screen). For the most part these aspects of the film are very well done, but certain parts feel a little derivative of other films, especially the climax. Z ends with a fair amount of closure, but the filmmakers wisely left some questions in the dark. I could definitely imagine a sequel to Z in the future.

One of the things about Z that surprised me was how it almost feels like two films. The first half of the film is very much a story of a mother and the love she feels for her son. When she first learns of her son’s behavioral problems, and feels the consequences of this in their social circle, she is completely in denial. Every mother wants to believe the best of their child, and it’s more difficult to see the truth with those blinders on. When the mother finally realizes the real danger, she has to battle a sinister imaginary friend, her disbelieving husband, and even her own son in order to try and save those she loves. At one point there is a scene I believed to be the end of Z, but to my surprise the film continues for another 20 minutes. This second section of the film feels much more like watching an abusive, controlling relationship. It is truly disturbing to see the woman’s life upended and left to the mercy of a male figure. Every moment of every day of her life is controlled by this entity, forcing her to distance herself from the outside world for fear its jealousy will lead to their harm. This is very powerful and disturbing in how it’s conveyed, but at the same time it makes the film feel a bit disjointed. The two halves work very well on their own, but I don’t know if they necessarily work together.

Every performance in Z is truly stunning. Keegan Connor Tracy (The Magicians, Final Destination 2) plays Elizabeth. While Tracy is fantastic through the entire film, she truly shines in the last half of the film. Elizabeth goes from questioning her own sanity to being willing to do anything it takes to save her son. Tracy absolutely shines in this role and brings heart-wrenching emotion to the horror of what’s happening. Jett Klyne (The Boy, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) plays Elizabeth’s son, Joshua. The way Klyne shows Joshua’s gradual transformation from normal, sweet boy to a very disturbed child is a performance I won’t soon forget. While these two actors carry most of the film, Sean Rogerson (Grave Encounters) is great as husband and father, Kevin, while Luke Moore (Sex, Lies & Murder) frightens viewers as Z himself.

The filmmakers behind Z were very wise with their scares. Much of the terror is from the building of tension, including some long, drawn out images where you are at the edge of your seat waiting to see what will happen. Yet that tension is punctuated with some perfectly crafted jump scares. These are definitely earned jump scares that will still have an impact, if not necessarily the scare, upon subsequent viewings. Most of the bigger scares rely heavily on great camerawork, making sure your eye is drawn to the right place at the right time. But, of course, many of the scares wouldn’t be complete without Z. The single greatest thing the filmmakers did was barely show Z. Viewers will get starling glimpses here and there, giving enough of an impression of his frightening appearance, but for the most part he is invisible and left to the shadows. So many horror films show too much of their evil entities, but by leaving the imaginary friend mostly unseen the viewers are able to project some of there imagination onto the character. Z is also created with a combination of motion actor and CGI, which wouldn’t be quite as effective in full view.

Z brings a menacing imaginary friend to life in a way that tackles dramatic issues while also delivering scares. Christensen and Minihan definitely created a ghoulish tale to haunt horror fans, but they also managed to embed compelling takes on motherhood and trauma. boasts strong performances, especially from Tracy and Klyne, and has what is probably the most terrifying imaginary friend I’ve ever seen. While there is a clear divide that seems to split the film into two disjointed parts, both parts are fascinating in how they deal with certain topics. Despite the flaws in the overall story arc, there are definitive moments that are guaranteed to be embedded in your mind long after watching.

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10

The Lodge

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Grace goes on a holiday trip with her fiancé and soon-to-be step-children. Her relationship with the kids gets off to a rocky start. Things only become more awkward when her fiancé has to return to the city for a couple days. Then, when things finally start looking up, frightening events unravel in this wintery hell.

Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, of Goodnight Mommy fame, bring their latest slow-burn of a film. The Lodge is co-directed and co-written by the duo, along with Sergio Casci (The Caller) also co-writing the screenplay. The film begins by introducing the father, his ex, and their two children. The audience gets to learn their family dynamic as well as how each family member feels about Grace long before her character is introduced. It isn’t until the father and children take their holiday trip to their winter getaway that Grace comes into the picture. This is an interesting tactic that allows us to gain all of our knowledge about Grace from unreliable second-hand sources who are openly hostile towards Grace. Suspense slowly builds from the tense relationship between Grace and the kids to outright terror as the trio is left stranded without food or heat in a winter storm. Franz, Fiala, and Sergio do a great job of crafting terror around the unknown. So many questions come up about what’s really happening as events unfold, leading to a truly haunting climax.

To say that The Lodge is bleak would be an understatement. The filmmakers are not afraid to deliver a film that’s as harsh and cold as the landscape. Between that and the slow pace of the plot, there are likely horror fans who won’t enjoy this film as much as others. I believe the pace was pitch-perfect for the story being told. Each layer of mystery is given time to be unraveled from the supernatural, to the religious, to the more earthly dangers. The one thing that doesn’t work as well for me is how the filmmakers telegraph the truth behind what’s happening a bit too clearly. This was also my biggest issue with the filmmakers’ previous film, Goodnight Mommy, although they did manage to be a bit more subtle with The Lodge. While the big twist might not be as much of a surprise as intended, it doesn’t change how impactful the final moments of the film are.

For a smaller indie horror film, The Lodge truly has a fantastic cast of easily recognizable faces. Riley Keough (It Comes At Night, Mad Max: Fury Road) stars as Grace. At first Grace comes across as cold and emotionless. After learning she is on medications for her childhood trauma, her personality makes more sense. Keough really brings the character to life once Grace is forced to go off her meds and her sanity gradually falls to pieces. Jaeden Martell (IT, Knives Out) plays Aidan, the angry son and protective older brother. Martell does a wonderful job of injecting his performance with an underlying sinister tone, even when he’s being kind to Grace. The only time Aidan feels genuine is when he’s interacting with his younger sister, and Martell makes those moments stand out. Lia McHugh (They Come Knocking, Along Came the Devil) plays young Mia. McHugh’s performance overall is great, but she really shines when she conveys Mia’s emotional devastation. It’s truly heartbreaking and on par with Florence Pugh’s performance in Midsommar. It’s also important to give shout outs to Richard Armitage (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Into the Storm) as loving father Richard and Alicia Silverstone (Clueless, The Crush) as the jilted ex-wife, Laura.

To create this austere tale, The Lodge employs a combination of chilling sights and sounds. Of course the beautiful cinematography and harsh setting are a large part of the film’s appeal, but there is more than that. One thing viewers are sure to notice is the dollhouse. Mia has an exact dollhouse replica of the vacation house, complete with a doll for each family member. The filmmakers often use shots of the dollhouse as a means to add a distinct eeriness to what is happening in the real house. There is also quite a bit of religious iconography used throughout the film. These images are not only unsettling, but they offer a connection between Grace’s past and present in a way that is both striking and disturbing. Rounding each scene out is the musical score by Danny Bensi (N0S4A2, The Outsider) and Saunder Jurriaans (N0S4A2, The Outsider). The combination of dissonant booms, stirring strings, and light trilling like snow falling lends itself to this grim tale.

The Lodge is a sombre psychological thriller that leaves the viewers feeling as desolate as the landscape. The filmmakers clearly know how to fashion a suspenseful plot that forces you to wonder what is real and what isn’t. That being said, there are some clues that make the final revelation a bit too obvious. Luckily, the final moments of the film still bring shock and awe. The performances from the star-studded cast and stunning artistry of the film add to the emotional devastation that ensues. The Lodge is sure to be a new favorite feel-bad film horror fans watch for the holidays.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

The Killer of Grassy Ridge (Short)

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The Shenandoah backcountry is a gorgeous place frequented by hikers. Unfortunately, it is also the hunting ground for a dangerous serial killer. With several bodies already discovered, now the killer is stalking their latest victim.

Making his premiere as a writer and director, Johnny K brings horror fans his short film, The Killer of Grassy Ridge. This short film is less than 10 minutes long and utilizes minimal dialogue, but still manages to pack a punch. Johnny K does this by playing with the viewers’ expectations of the short. It opens on a dirty, somewhat frightening looking man burying something in the woods. As if that isn’t creepy enough, he soon encounters an injured young female hiker who is all alone in the wilderness. The man has no lines while the woman sparse dialogue. The only context we get in the short film is from a radio the man is listening to. It is turned to a news station that talks about another body being found. This is the source of the danger, as having a scary man in the woods is only enough to cause alarm rather than inducing fear. The lack of dialogue and setting up of certain horror expectations, or even tropes, allows K to have fun with the short and include a few great “aha!” moments in the climax.

The lack of dialogue makes it a bit more difficult to give a complete analysis of the performances. One thing I can say about the two leads of The Killer of Grassy Ridge is that they have great presence on screen. Michael Stumbo makes his film debut as the grimy looking sinister figure, Wetzel Reid. Wetzel doesn’t speak during the short, but Stumbo still manages to be an imposing figure. Many horror fans may watch Stumbo on screen and immediately think Wetzel sure looks a hell of a lot like Otis Firefly from Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, played by Bill Moseley. I can only assume this was a deliberate choice to make sure viewers look at Wetzel as the villain without it needing to be explicitly explained. Opposite Stumbo is Heather Stone, also making her film debut, as the hiker. Stone’s performance in The Killer of Grassy Ridge stands out because she shows quite a bit of range in the short amount of time she’s on screen. She starts out as a happy hiker enjoying nature, to being injured and alone in the woods asking for help, to something quite different during the climax.

The Killer of Grassy Ridge skillfully presents stereotypical characters and horror cliches, then proceeds to roll them in their grave. Johnny K takes care to make sure all signs point to a single logical conclusion. Everything from the lack of dialogue, to the casting, to the radio news context lends to one possible outcome. Then he flips the script and delivers something a bit more unexpected. The one thing I’m not sure The Killer of Grassy Ridge fully achieves is telling a complete story while also leaving the audience wanting more. There is definitely a complete story told here, and it could easily be expanded upon. Yet there isn’t anything making me crave more information from the plot. Either way, this is a strong debut from K, Stumbo, and Stone. The Killer of Grassy Ridge is a fascinating short thriller that feels fresh by using classic horror tropes to subvert your expectations.

OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

The Night

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An Iranian couple living in the US is driving home one night after a gathering with friends. They decide to take their baby and stay the night in a hotel instead of making the drive home so late. In this dark and quiet hotel, the couple is forced to face the demons of their past or else this bizarre night may never end.

Writer and director Kourosh Ahari (Generations, The Yellow Wallpaper) and co-writer Milad Jarmooz (Maybe There) create an eerie tale with The Night. The film opens with our two protagonists, Babak and Neda, at a gathering with friends. We get to know who they are by how they interact with the people who know them best before we really see them interact much with each other. It is clear there is some subconscious strain between the married couple, and it only escalates after they leave the gathering with their baby girl. When they decide to stop and stay the night in a hotel, things go from strained to a complete nightmare. Strange sounds and ghostly visions plague them all through the night. The couple gradually realizes the secrets of their past are coming back to haunt them, threatening to destroy the life they’ve built together in the States. The fact that their baby is with them only makes the situation more dire and frightening.

For the most part, The Night creates a haunting and tense mythos. The increasingly strange and intense visions seem to be connected to matching tattoos the married couple chose at random to get together the very day the film begins. Whatever this symbol is, it has managed to manifests itself as Babak and Neda’s innermost secrets and forces them to face their past. It’s an interesting concept that definitely results in delightful frights, but this is also where the mythos gets a bit muddy. The tattoos look almost like an Aztec or Mayan coin, spilt in half between the pair. Then, before any ghostly apparitions appear, the couple repeatedly encounter a creepy black cat. This automatically makes me think of ancient Egyptian folklore. While I appreciate keeping the origin and the reasoning for the events of this one night being left to the imagination of the viewers, having a stronger cultural origin at the very least would have been wise.

Both leads deliver striking performances in The Night. Shahab Hosseini (The Salesman, A Separation) stars as Babak. Babak is a very closed off man who appears to cope with his feelings with alcohol rather than talking with his wife or friends. Niouhsa Jafarian, who I couldn’t find on IMDb, plays Neda. Neda is the more grounded of the two, yet she keeps things bottled up just as much as her husband. Jafarian and Hosseini play off of each other very well. There are subtleties to their dynamic shown through curt remarks and body language that expertly show the strain between them. It’s obvious Neda carries resentment towards Babak and Babak doesn’t seem to be able to be around Neda without drinking. This bizarre night shows how similar the two are, especially with the secrets they keep, yet it’s how they react when confronted by those secrets that will decide who survives.

The Night brings audiences a chilling tale of past secrets breaking into the present in a truly haunting way. Ahari once again shows he has a knack for creating frightening ambience. Together Ahari and Jarmooz deliver a tense plot, although the mythos leaves a bit to be desired. Luckily the focus is more on the secrets and ghostly manifestations of those secrets, which makes it easier to overlook some of the flaws. The suspenseful film is helped by great performances from Hosseini and Jafarian, as well as the creepy hotel setting. The Night is sure the send chills down your spine while also making you take a hard look at the secrets you keep.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

The Last Ones

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A deadly virus has wiped out most of the population. John and Michael have been surviving together since the beginning, finding food and avoiding the creatures that come at night. After months with no sign of another living human, the appearance of a young woman tests their friendship. It soon becomes clear not everything is as it seems.

The Last Ones (previously titled Last Days) is the feature-film debut of writer and director Andrew Jara. At first glance, this film seems like just another zombie apocalypse film. The film opens with John desperately trying to find his family with very unfortunate results. He is left alone in this post-pandemic world with his friend, Michael. The eventually find a daily routine as the months go by with no other living humans to be seen. Yet at night Michael guard their home from the living dead who sometimes stalk the area. Then John runs into a mysterious woman, Karina. Her presence changes the course of the film, bringing some interesting  and unexpected elements into the plot.

In general, the plot is a very interesting one. There are some various twists and turns that deliver something audiences might not expect. Watching The Last Ones, horror fans will likely feel an influence of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It is a slow burn of a film that gradually builds tension. Like Romero’s work, the plot also focuses much more on the tumultuous relationships between people rather than the undead threat outside. This shows a lot of promise for Jara’s future work.

Yet there are some elements of the film that don’t work quite as well. The beginning of The Last Ones is a bit rough at times. Some of the dialogue is a bit clunky and forced as it attempts to give the audience a bit of exposition. This feeling of clunkiness unfortunately isn’t help much by the performances. Mark Ocegueda plays John in his feature-film debut. His delivery of the dialogue is a bit awkward and void of emotion, but the dialogue and his delivery gradually improves as the film progresses. Marcelle Bowman (The Virus, Refuge) plays Karina. Her performance is adequate and also seems to improve throughout the film. The highlight performance in the film comes from Algernon D’Ammassa (Doc, The Cellar Door) as Michael. Some of his dialogue also feels a bit forced, but D’Ammassa does a great job of conveying an underlying menacing feeling about him.

Along with the overall plot of The Last Ones, the look of the film also appears to be an homage to Night of the Living Dead. The most obvious visual choice that hints to that is the fact that the film is entirely in black and white. This nod to Romero is also a wise decision as a micro-budget horror film. It allows the filmmaker to create the illusion of blood and gore without having to spend too much on practical or CGI effects. There is some minimal prosthetic makeup for the undead that realistically might not be that visually appealing, but the black and white masks it and makes the effects passable. One aspect that surprised me is the well-crafted musical score by Jordon Schranz.

The Last Ones is a classic zombie film with a twist that has its shortcomings, but still shows promise. Considering it is a micro-budget horror film and the first feature film by Jara, it is surprisingly well done. The film gets off to a rough start, from the dialogue to the performances, but gradually improve as the tension build. D’Ammassa is sure to stand out in viewers’ minds as a memorable performance. From the unique take on the zombie subgenre of horror to the homage to Romero, this imperfect film is still worth a watch. It holds my interest enough to make me curious what Jara will do next.

OVERALL RATING: 4/10

The Invisible Man

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Cecilia finally left her abusive ex. Shortly after, she gets word he’s killed himself. Cecilia believes her nightmare is finally over. Then strange things begin to happen, making her think she could be losing her mind. Her nightmare is only just beginning.

Horror favorite writer and director Leigh Whannell (Saw, Upgrade) brings an updated take on the classic Universal monster film with The Invisible Man. This iteration of the film focuses on Cecilia as she finally escapes the clutches of her emotionally and physically abusive boyfriend. She then learns that her ex killed himself and left his fortune to Cecilia. Her life finally starts to be going on the right track, until things take a turn. What starts out as small accidents, such as misplacing something, quickly escalates. Cecilia knows her ex is alive and trying to continue to ruin her life. The problem is, no one believes her. It gives the film a great updated edge, while also updating the source of the invisibility. This time it’s a purposeful, technological advancement that makes sense without the need for over-explanation. There may be a twist or two that seasoned horror fans will see coming, but it doesn’t take away from the overall enjoyment of the film.

There are so many aspects of The Invisible Man that not only make a great feminist film, but it’s also just a fantastic thriller. Cecilia is a battered woman. She stayed with her ex for far too long out of fear of what he would do and because he convinced her she couldn’t escape him. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he uses his brilliance to pull off the most invasive and traumatizing gaslighting I have ever seen on film. Cecilia has to fight to be believed by everyone from the police to her best friend to her own sister. At times, even the audience may question Cecilia’s sanity, even though we know the truth behind it all. Her struggle to break free of the cycle and to be believed is one many women can relate to all to easily. Inserting this into an updated monster movie creates heightened suspense that will keep the audience white-knuckled and on the edge of their seats. This ex is not only a terrifying monster, but he’s also a very real monster (despite the invisibility aspect). That almost makes The Invisible Man more terrifying than any other Universal monster.

While this film as a fantastic ensemble cast, we need to talk about the unstoppable talent that is Elizabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Kitchen) as Cecilia. At the start of The Invisible Man, Cecilia is a terrified, battered woman trying desperately to escape. Moss is truly haunting as she portrays this woman evolve from someone debilitated by fear to a strong heroine who knows she can only rely on herself for survival. What is especially mesmerizing about Moss’s performance is how she eventually gets to an almost primal state of being as she fights tooth and nail for that survival. Moss clearly carries the weight of the film, but it important to also note Oliver Jackson-Cohen (The Haunting of Hill House, Emerald City) as Adrian. We might not see much of Adrian in the film, but Jackson-Cohen’s portrayal of this all-to-human monster is sure to chill audiences to their core. Other great performances come from Aldis Hodge (Hidden Figures, Straight Outta Compton) as James, Storm Reid (A Wrinkle in Time, Sleight) as Sydney, and Harriet Dyer (Killing Ground, No Activity) as Emily.

Because the film is called The Invisible Man, naturally the attacker is unseen throughout a majority of the film. The filmmakers still manage to make his presence known with very simple and subtle techniques. Probably the most simplistic method is drawing focus to a specific spot on camera. It may appear there is nothing there, but by focusing on a single spot, potentially even slowly zooming in on that area, we know he’s there. Often times the audience is just barely able to see something move when Cecilia has left the room. When we do finally see Adrian in his suit that allows him to become invisible, it is a basic design achieved with a combination of practical and CGI effects that is sleek, modern, and function. It is a perfect look for this modern age tale. Be sure to also keep an eye out for lots of Easter eggs hidden throughout the film from homage to the original Invisible Man to nods to some of Whannell’s past films.

The Invisible Man expertly brings the classic Universal monster flick into the modern age. It is an enthralling tale of resilience and survival against a familiar evil. Whannell truly knocks it out of the part with his variation on the classic tale. He took a much simpler approach while making this film than past Universal monster updates, and that likely is a large part of why The Invisible Man is a hit. Even those who don’t like horror films should see this film for the compelling message it sends and to see Moss’s visceral performance. This is sure to end up on many “top 10 of 2020” film lists.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

The Room

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A couple leave their old jobs and home behind to start a new life in a rural fixer upper. Soon after moving in, they find a hidden room. What makes this room special is it will grant you any physical desire. After many wishes, the couple wishes for something most wouldn’t dare. Yet they soon discover that everything has a cost.

Written and directed by Christian Volckman (Renaissance) and co-written by Eric Forestier (La troisième partie du monde), The Room spins an interesting yarn. We meet this couple as they arrive at their new home, having left their jobs and life in the city behind. While working on various repairs to the house, they discover a hidden room. Any physical thing you could want, the room will provide. Money? Clothes? Furniture? It will conjure it for you. Yet we all know everything has a price and a consequence. When the wife impulsively wishes for a baby, it not only puts a strain on their relationship, but it threatens to ruin every aspect of the life they’ve built together.

This film takes a unique yet simple concept and runs with it. It forces the audience to wonder what they would wish for and what they would be willing sacrifice. The plot is very effective, and the filmmakers don’t spend too much time trying to explain how or why the room works this way. There are some minor hints, but for the most part the audience is just made to accept it as the way things are. When the couple wishes for a baby, after the wife has suffered miscarriages, it leads to some very unexpected twists and turns. This is when the plot loses me a bit. It veers into very strange territory that, while very thrilling and suspenseful, is also quite uncomfortable to watch. I would wager that this is the goal of the filmmakers, but it seemed like an unnecessary direction to take.

The two leads in The Room are both fantastic. Olga Kurylenko (Mara, Quantum of Solace) stars as Kate. Kurylenko brings an emotionally charged performance. As Kate we see her go from wariness about the wish-granting room to emotional duress as she tries to hold the frayed pieces of her life together with ill-advised wishes. Her husband, Matt, is played by Kevin Janssens (Revenge, The Ardennes). Matt is a loving husband who wants to provide anything and everything his wife desires. Yet her desires lead to an unexpected place that Matt doesn’t quite know how to handle. Janssens plays a surprisingly warm character who has fits of rage, but his love for his wife is always evident. The pair have amazing on-screen chemistry and convey the subtleties of a committed relationship.

Most of the artistry of The Room involves the production design. The house where the film takes place is stunning. As the couple accumulates more things from their wishes, each room in the house takes on a variety of themes. The entire inside of the house turns into something out of a fairy tale. At one point another world is created within the wish room, which creates a very striking image that plays with the eye a bit. It is the kind of house some might never want to leave.

The Room is a simplistic morality tale that makes audiences wonder what they would do if they could wish for anything physical they desired and what they would be willing to sacrifice to keep it. The filmmakers do a great job of slowly building up the wishes until they become out of control. The house, in a way, is a character itself that drives a wedge between the family unit as it gives them whatever their hearts desire. The performances from both Kurylenko and Janssens are phenomenal and only reaffirm how talented they are. The film veers into a direction that might put off some viewers, but overall it is a well crafted and suspenseful story.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10