Creature

Sweetheart

sweetheart

After an apparent shipwreck, Jenn washes ashore on a remote tropical island. As if having to survive stranded on an island isn’t bad enough, as night falls Jenn realizes a deadly creature uses this island as its hunting ground. Jenn will have to battle the elements, dehydration, starvation, and the creature in order to survive.

This thrilling new aquatic horror film is directed by J.D. Dillard (Sleight, Judy Goose). Dillard also co-wrote Sweetheart along with Alex Theurer (Sleight, Intervention) and Alex Hyner, this being Hyner’s first feature film. The film opens as Jenn awakes on the shore of the tropic island. She has to quickly come to terms with the shipwreck, the likelihood that all her friends are dead, and how she will live on the island until found. Jenn proves to be a very resourceful woman, even as she is forced to fend off creature attacks each night. I’ve always been a fan of aquatic horror films, especially those with unique creatures. Sweetheart not only delivers a fantastic creature feature that is exciting to watch, but it also gives the audience a heroine they can root for.

Sweetheart may be a great creature feature, but it is also very well written. Since Jenn is on the island alone for a majority of the film, there is very little dialogue. The story is told primarily through action, which is very difficult to do in this day and age. There has to be a balance of action and exposition in order to hold the audience’s interest. Dillard, Theurer, and Hyner do a phenomenal job of maintaining this balance throughout the film. They even know when to inject moments where Jenn speaks to herself to break up the silence. Similarly, the audience only learns things as Jenn reveals them or as they are revealed to her. This leaves certain plot points a mystery. While for the most part it works well, there is one plot point that alludes to the fate of a character. While it works in the sense that we only learn as much as Jenn does, it seems almost unnecessary. It hints at something that never becomes important by the end of the film.

What I found most compelling about the writing is the subtext. There are multiple references in Sweetheart to whether or not Jenn is a trustworthy person. It references how women, especially women of color, often have a hard time getting people to believe them. In this film it’s to make people believe there is a ravenous monster lurking in the water. In the real world, it’s to make cops or other people believe they have been abused, raped, or any number of other terrible things. It’s a not-so-subtle subtext that fits in perfectly with the horror genre.

The film has a small cast, each performance being great. Kiersey Clemons (Flatliners, Dope) absolutely carries the film with her performance as Jenn. The way Jenn adapts to her situation and does what she can to defend herself is fascinating to watch. Clemons perfectly portrays Jenn’s resilience as well as her striking ability to accept her situation and rise above it. Another vital and entertaining performance comes from Andrew Crawford (Alien: Covenant, Little Monsters) as the creature. While this isn’t a speaking role, Crawford breaks through the screen as an imposing and terrifying monster. There is also an elegance about the creature and the way it moves. These two opposing forces make for quite the power struggle.

Visually, Sweetheart has a lot going for it. The tropical setting is absolutely gorgeous, which makes the presence of a monster stand out. The setting is enhanced by some absolutely gorgeous cinematography by Stefan Duscio. Duscio especially has a way of using natural light sources, such as the sunset and fire, to enhance the scene and draw the eye to specific things on screen. Then there is the creature design. In a film where there are really two characters, Jenn and the creature, the design of the creature becomes a vital piece of the film. Luckily, the filmmakers chose to go with a practical monster design that is as terrifying as it is sleek. It looks like something that could exist in the tropical setting, living in the ocean and hunting on land. Some of the creature effects are enhanced by CGI, but it’s clear that for the most part it is practically made.

Sweetheart is equal parts monster survival movie and social commentary film. Dillard, Theurer, and Hyner prove to be a fantastic filmmaking trio. They create a film with minimal dialogue that tells a powerful story of survival, resilience, and strength. While there are one or two extraneous aspects that never become fully-formed subplots, they don’t necessarily detract from the primary focus of the film. It is still a stunning film with a frightening creature and an important message: believe women.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

The Monster

A mother and her young daughter have a tumultuous relationship. The mother is a neglectful alcoholic, and the daughter essentially has to take care of her mother. They come to the decision that the daughter should go stay with her dad for a while. On the drive there they get into a car accident. They are stranded on a lonely road in the middle of the woods, in the dark and rain. It soon becomes clear that there is something hunting them from the woods. The mother and daughter will have to rely on each other in order to survive the monster in the darkness.

Writer/director Bryan Bertino (The Strangers) knows how to create a character-driven horror film. Yes, there is a terrifying monster trying to kill the characters in the story, but the real focus is the relationship between the mother and daughter. The mother, Kathy, is a raging alcoholic who can’t seem to get it together. This leaves the very young daughter, Lizzy, to not only care for herself, but also care for her train wreck of a mother. There relationship is very volatile and typically consists of screaming matches, and sometimes even violence. We learn much about how they ended up on the road, hating each other, through a series of flashbacks from both the mother’s and daughter’s point of view. When the two are thrown into survival mode as they fight for their lives against a dangerous monster,  it forces them to not only face the danger at hand, but their relationship as well.

While I am technically a film critic, sometimes I get annoyed with film critics because they tend to read too much into films. I saw The Monster as part of the International Horror and Scifi Film Festival’s Horror Showcase. After the film there was a discussion about what people thought and many of the viewers were also film critics. While I agree with many of the people there that believe the monster was a physical embodiment (or a metaphor) for the alcoholism and addiction that is tearing the mother and daughter apart the other film critics lost me when they said things like the monster didn’t exist at all or other out-there theories. Yes, the monster was a physical representation of what the family was going through, but it was also simply a monster. The two things are not mutually exclusive in horror films.

The monster itself was very well done. The filmmakers chose to go the route of practical effects, which was necessary in a film like this that is so grounded in emotions. The creature design was also very well done. The face was frightening and vicious. There were a few flaws. It was very clear in many scenes where you see the full body of the monster that you can clearly tell it is a man in a monster suite. Despite that, I still appreciate that they chose this over CGI. The only other issues I had with the monster had more to do with inconsistencies in the story. It appears that when light is shined in the monster’s face, it runs off. Whether it is scared of the light or the light hurts it, we never know. My issue is that, while it is afraid of the light from a flashlight and flame, it doesn’t seem to be bothered much by street lights or headlights. Possible it is only effected by light shined directly in it’s eyes, but if that was the case it should have been made more clear.

When a story takes places primarily in the dark, it is common for a lot to be lost in the darkness. This is not the case for The Monster. The cinematography is stunning. They did an amazing job of making sure things can be seen clearly throughout the film no matter how dark it was. There was also a lot of play with light and darkness that brought a lot of beauty to the scenes. One scene specifically stands out in my mind after watching the film. Kathy gets out of the car to investigate something and she is standing in the light of the headlights, the forest illuminated behind her. It seems like she should be safe in the light, but the deeper into the forest you look the darker it gets. It is clear that there is danger nearby. The shot was so simple yet something about it is absolutely gorgeous.

The two leads in this film gave absolutely marvelous performances. Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks, What If) blew me away as the drunken mother, Kathy. Kazan portrayed Kathy’s internal struggle of wanting to be a good mother while also having no control over her addiction. This was a role I wouldn’t have thought Kazan to be in, but now I can’t imagine it with anyone else. Ella Ballentine (The Captive, Standoff) was quite a surprise as the daughter, Lizzy. I had never seen her in a film before, and she had such a strong presence on the screen. Ballentine was so powerful because she is portrayed in most of the film as the “adult” because she has to take care of her alcoholic mother. She then goes from being strong and independent to a scared little girl when she realizes monsters are real. The two actresses together made the perfect duo.

What makes The Monster such a masterful film is that it throws people who don’t want to be around each other into a terrifying situation where they have to rely on each other to survive. It is something that Bertino also did in The Strangers. While there are horrifying events happening around them, the true focus of the film is the relationship between the mother and daughter. Because of this, I am able to look past the couple flaws involving the monster and see the masterpiece this film truly is. Horror and non-horror fans alike will appreciate this film and likely relate to the relationships that we as the audience witness.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

Dark Was the Night

Paul Shields (Kevin Durand) is the sheriff in a small town at the edge of a forest. Things in this sleepy little town take a turn when odd things begin to happen. Livestock and family pets start to vanish during the night. Then one morning bizarre animal tracks are found in the snow throughout the entire town. Is this the result of an elaborate prank, or is there something more ominous at work? Shields must quickly follow the clues to find the truth before panic engulfs the residents and things go from bad to worse.

I have to start this review by saying how much I love Kevin Durand (The Strain, X-Men: Wolverine). While he typically plays gruff, surly characters, Durand showed his range in this film. He is still a bit of a tough guy, but his character in this film has more emotional depth with the inner demons he has to battle. Even though his role in this film is smaller, Nick Damici (Stake Land, Late Phases) is also great. He plays the knowledgeable local hunter who also owns what is probably the only bar in town. The only acting in the film that I wasn’t completely sold on came from Lukas Haas (Mars Attacks, Inception). He plays Donny Saunders, the new deputy in town that recently moved from the big city. There wasn’t necessarily anything bad about his acting, but it seems like he plays the same character in practically every movie I have seen him in. He is quiet, slightly awkward, and he doesn’t really show any emotions (especially in his face).

The story for this film moved at a very nice, gradual pace up until the climax. It created a feeling of hysteria, which worked well because it gives you an idea of what the townspeople are likely feeling as these events occur. I love that you only see glimpses of what lurks in the woods. It makes the climax that much more effective when the creature is finally revealed. While I think this film really could have benefited from practical effects for the creature, I understand why they chose to go with CGI effects instead. The creature still looked amazing and terrifying.

The only thing that really bothered me was that the filmmakers opted to use a blue filter on the camera anytime they filmed during the day. This may just be a personal preference, but I really hate when movies use a blue filter to either exaggerate the look of it being cold or to attempt to turn a scene filmed during the day into a night scene. To me, it almost feels like the filmmakers think the audience isn’t smart enough to understand. We get that it is cold in the daytime scenes of this film. They are wearing winter clothes, the ground is covered with dead leaves, and for a good portion of the movie there is snow. The blue filter was completely unnecessary. As I said, this is probably just a personal preference, but it really bugs me.

There were many successful aspects of this film. In general, the acting was excellent (especially Durand). I also loved that they took a creative, original story line and turned it into an exceptionally creepy film. It is the kind of movie that will make you think twice about entering the woods alone. This film also had a unique creature that I have not seen anywhere else. Go watch this film, and be prepared to be on the edge of your seat for the full 90 minutes.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

Animal

A group of friends decide to go on a camping trip. Upon arrival, they find out the camp grounds are closed, so they go on a hike instead. Their hike was poorly planned, and they end up hiking back to the car after dark. The friends soon realize there is something in the woods. It is some kind of predator they have never seen, and it will stop at nothing to hunt them all. The friends get chased to a cabin where they find other survivors. The group must band together in order to keep the creature at bay and find a way to escape.

This movie was fun and gory, as most monster movies should be, but it was all painfully predictable. I forced my husband to watch this film with me, and I found myself on multiple occasions looking at him and saying, “I bet this is about to happen,” only to have that exact thing happen two seconds later. To be fair, I watch a lot of horror movies so I can usually predict what is about to happen even with the more unique movies, but this one was one big monster movie stereotype. It made it very simple to determine where the storyline was going to go. Looking back, I believe there was only one scene in the movie that actually surprised me.

Even the characters in the film were stereotypes. You have the nice smart girl, the slutty girl, the jock, the boy next door, the gay friend (a more recent horror movie stereotype), and the jerk that you can’t wait to watch die. The acting was surprisingly good considering it is a monster horror movie. This made up for the lackluster character stereotypes, at least a little bit. There wasn’t a single performance I felt was done poorly, but there wasn’t necessarily a standout performance either. I think a majority of my issues with the characters had to do with the writing and directing, as opposed to the acting.

When it comes to the creature itself, I loved the practical effects. I know this is something I rave about in almost any movie that uses practical effects, but I believe it is a dying art that needs to be appreciated. You can tell the creature is a person with masks and prosthetics, but the only area you can truly tell it is a person is in the arms. The look of the monster was very stylish and cool, which made it enjoyable. The only thing about the creature that really bothered me was that the film never explained what it is.

Just like the use of practical effects, I am also a stickler about plot holes. There are many times during the film where they make a point of saying at least one character had gone to this area for years (and clearly never encountered the monster), and someone obviously lived in the cabin they find before this monster came around. So where did the monster come from? They do make a point of saying the forest area is closed, and at one point one of the characters finds a Marine Corps backpack. This is possibly a hint that the creature is part of some military experiment, but they never bring it up again. I wish they had made it more explicit. Is the creature a military experiment gone wrong, is it an alien, or is it a forest protector awakened because of deforestation? I will never know, and it kills me.

This film is predictable, stereotypical, and has some plot holes that drove me nuts. Despite these shortcomings, the acting, practical effects, and healthy amount of gore still make the film fun to watch. Don’t watch this movie if you are looking for a unique horror movie that surprises you at every turn. This is more the kind of horror movie you watch when you are in the mood for a mindless blood-fest with a monster hunting down some idiot co-eds. Enjoy it for what it is, but don’t expect it to blow your mind.

OVERALL RATING: 5/10