movie

Nightmare Cinema

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One by one, people are drawn to a seemingly abandoned movie theater. As they take a seat in the empty rows the lights go down and the projectors starts up. What these people see on screen is their worst nightmares. Each person must face their fears. Then they must face the projectionist.

Horror fan-favorite Mick Garris (Hocus Pocus, Sleepwalkers) brought his latest Masters of Horror-like film, Nightmare Cinema, to the Portland Horror Film Festival. In this film, Garris brought together other well-known horror directors to create an anthology that touches on many different subgenres. The connecting plot is by Garris himself and revolves around characters from each segment being drawn to the old movie theater. Once inside, a creepy projectionist shows them their greatest fears on the big screen. From there the film goes into different segments, each with a very different look, feel, and tone.

The first is written and directed by Alejandro Brugués (Juan of the Dead, ABCs of Death) that starts out as an 80’s style slasher, but quickly turns into something else. Then the audience is shown the more horrific, if not darkly funny, side of plastic surgery directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins, The Howling). From there we get a more traditional demonic possession segment directed by Ryûhei Kitamura (Midnight Meat Train, Versus) that has an epic climax. Writer and director David Slade (Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night) takes on the fourth segment with a black and white Twilight Zone-like story about a woman who is struggling to keep hold of her sanity as she sees monsters all around her. Finally, Garris returns in the last segment in his heartwarming supernatural thriller about a boy in a hospital who can see the dead.

What makes this anthology work so well is that each chapter feels entirely unique and independent from one another. Yet, at the same time, the overarching story of the projectionist and his empty theater acts as a fantastic connector between each segment. The film also delivers a little something that every horror fan can enjoy. There are parts that are in the realm of horror-comedy, some of it is supernatural and eerie, and there are even some aspects that venture into the sci-fi side of things. I personally enjoyed each chapter of the film, but even if others don’t, there will at least be one segment that tickles their fancy.

There are a wide array of acting styles in Nightmare Cinema, and each of them is incredibly entertaining. Each actor does a great job of molding their performances to fit with the tone of the segment they are acting in. There are a few select performances that stand out. One of the most powerful performances comes from Elizabeth Reaser (The Haunting of Hill House, Ouija: Origin of Evil) in Slade’s chapter, “This Way to Egress.” Reaser plays Helen, a mother struggling to determine if the world she sees around her is real or all in her mind. She acts with her entire body, showing the depth of her tension and anxiety in a powerful way. A surprise performance can be seen in Brugués’ segment, “The Thing in the Woods,” in the form of Sarah Elizabeth Withers in her first feature film role as Samantha. What I love about Withers’ performance is how she perfectly captures the acting style of classic 80’s slasher final girls. While these two performances are my favorite, it is a difficult decision to make because everyone truly does a wonderful job.

With each segment of Nightmare Cinema being completely different, there is a wide variety of effects used. For the most part the various chapters utilize practical effects. This can be seen in everything from corpses, extreme plastic surgery, people with monstrous faces, and more. All of it is beautifully done and enhances the stories being told. CGI effects are used a bit more sparingly, aside from certain scenes in “The Thing in the Woods” segment. The CGI in that story can look a bit cheesy, but it is in keeping with the classic 80’s theme. It is clear that a lot of thought was put into each effect and how they could be used to add visual interest to each chapter.

Nightmare Cinema brings together horror greats to create a variety of chilling tales to appeal to every kind of horror fan. Each chapter is completely unique when compared to the others and each one is highly entertaining. There are shocks, laughs, scares, and everything in between. The various segments are filled with fantastic performances and amazing effects that only help to make each story all the more fun to watch. Mick Garris clearly knows how to gather the best directors to create brilliant works of horror. I hope Nightmare Cinema is just the first in what has the potential to be a fantastic anthology franchise.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

Reborn

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On a stormy night, a stillborn baby girl is brought back to life in the morgue by an electrical surge. The morgue attendant takes the baby home, never telling the mother her baby is alive. 16 years later the girl escapes the torment of her adoptive home. Now she searches for her mother and she won’t let anyone get in her way.

This year, the Portland Horror Film festival introduced Portlanders to Reborn. This film is directed by Julian Richards (The Last Horror Movie, Summer Scars) and it is the feature film debut of writer Michael Mahin. The film begins by showing the strange attendant working in the morgue when suddenly a storm causes a bolt of electricity to bring a stillborn baby back to life. The film then jumps 16 years later. The mother is an actress who is having a hard time finding her inspiration, and the daughter is trapped in a horrific life with the morgue attendant. On the girl’s 16th birthday she manages to escape and track down her real mother. The girl is clearly unstable from the horrific life she had to live and she is so determined to reconnect with her mother. What takes her determination to a whole new level is the fact that her resurrection also gave her electrokinetic powers, which she uses to destroy anyone who tries to get in her way.

Reborn offers audiences an intriguing and suspenseful film, but it’s not without its flaws. One of the biggest issues is that the film often goes back and forth on how the daughter is portrayed. Early on she is shown as a victim of obvious abuse from her “adoptive” home. This leads to some obvious mental issues that accompany being held captive and likely tortured for 16 years. As the film progresses, she becomes more of a villain, obsessing over her mother and killing anyone who wrongs her. She also can’t seem to decide if she wants to reconnect with her mother or kill her as well. Again, this is likely due to the mental trauma she has experienced for years, but the back and forth happens so instantaneously that is ends up being more jarring than anything.

One of the stronger aspects of Reborn is the performances by the two leading ladies. Horror fans will immediately recognize Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, Castle Freak) as the mother, Lena. This is actually the second film Crampton appeared in at PHFF, which is a testament to how beloved she is in the horror genre. While her character comes across as being a bit bland, Crampton is still enjoyable to watch as she brings Lena to life. Kayleigh Gilbert (Break Night) plays Lena’s electrokinetic daughter, Tess. Gilbert does a surprisingly good job of performing alongside Crampton. She also does a great job of showing the different sides of Tess from desperate to deranged. There is also a fun cameo by Chaz Bono (American Horror Story, Dirty) as Ken, the creepy morgue attendant.

At the beginning of Reborn there are some great makeup and practical effects used in the opening morgue scene. There is one cadaver that is featured quite a bit in this scene and it looks great. There is another body found later one that looks almost mummy-like which is also very well done. When the film gets to Tess’ kills, that is when the effects team loses me a bit. She uses her electrokinetic powers to shock people to death, and the CGI effects used to convey that electric power look very hokey. In one specific death scene I almost laughed out loud. Luckily, Tess’ powers are the focus of the film and the few deaths that utilize this power can be overlooked.

Reborn has great star power and an interesting concept, but it fails to really cash in on that idea. There are simply too many instances where the motivations and focus of the plot switch back and forth, making the tension wane. Tess’ power also seems to be almost an afterthought and more of a gimmick for them to use in death scenes rather than an integral part of the plot. It is a great first effort for Mahin and enough to make me interested in what he does next. The biggest draw for this film is clearly Barbara Crampton, and fans of her work will likely still enjoy this film enough for a watch, but it won’t stand out in her stellar filmography.

OVERALL RATING: 5.5/10

Depraved

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On a late-night walk home, a man is randomly attacked. When he awakes, he finds himself in a room filled with medical instruments. His terror truly sets in when the face looking back at him from the mirror isn’t his own. A field surgeon suffering from PTSD has pieced the man together from different bodies in an attempt to defeat death.

Horror alum Larry Fassenden (Beneath, Wendigo) wrote and directed this updated take on Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. While past iterations of Shelly’s classic tale have primarily focused on the doctor’s point of view, Fassenden chose to focus more on the “monster” with Depraved.  He opens the film by introducing the audience to Alex as he gets into an argument with his girlfriend about moving in together. While Alex isn’t the greatest guy, this moment allows for the audience to quickly become invested in Alex and his relationship. When he is killed not long after that, he awakes in a monstrous new body made up of different parts. While it is a different face, it is the same brain so the audience still cares about his fate. The monster, dubbed Adam, has limited motor and intellectual skills. He has to re-learn everything and as he learns more he also remembers more. It creates a compelling story from the perspective of the man brought back from the dead with interesting moral issues the audience likely hasn’t seen before.

Depraved also focuses somewhat on the doctor. At first it is simply through his relationship with Adam. There is clearly a fatherly affection there as he teaches Adam how to problem solve and communicate and, essentially, how to be a man again. While this aspect is interesting, the film gradually shifts its focus from Adam to the doctor and not necessarily for the better. The audience is suddenly faced with flashbacks from the doctor’s time in the war and his drive to defeat death as a result from his PTSD.

This shift in focus causes some problems for the plot for two main reasons. First, it stalls the plot making it go from a slow burn to a sputtering crawl in some parts. There is a clear forward momentum and this shift in focus almost completely eradicates that momentum. Second, by focusing more on the doctor it changes the sympathetic point of view. For the first half of the film the focus is on Adam and he is conveyed as the protagonist we should be rooting for. As that focus changes to the doctor, not only does he become the more sympathetic character, but Adam also does increasingly monstrous things. It almost makes all the character development from the first half of the film irrelevant.

The film has a small cast of extremely talented actors. Alex Breaux (Bushwick, John Harvard) stars as the newly created Adam. What makes his performance especially compelling is the way he acts with his entire body. From a simple limp, to conveying poor motor skills, to showing emotions through his face when he can’t speak, Breaux truly brings Adam to life (pun intended). Another great performance comes from David Call (The Magicians, The Sinner) as the disillusioned doctor, Henry. Call excels at showing the audience that Henry isn’t a bad person and he cares about Adam, but he is single-minded in his scientific quest. On top of the great performances there are a few familiar horror faces fans will recognize such as Chloe Levine (The Ranger, The Transfiguration) and Joshua Leonard (The Blair Witch Project, Bates Motel).

Unlike most Frankenstein-inspired films, the filmmakers behind Depraved opted to go for a bleak color scheme and more minimalistic effects. The film appears to be drained of color, providing a monochromatic color palette. This choice enhances the dark and depressing tone of the film. The practical effects are solely focused on Adam. Minimal prosthetics on the skin give the appearance that Adam is made up of different body parts stitched together. While these are very well done and the minimal use gives the body a more realistic look, I almost wish the effects team had taken it a bit further. Even though the body is stitched together, it still looks like it is all from the same body. The overall look would have been more striking if the pieces looked more like they were from different bodies of different colors and sizes.

Depraved delivers a unique, updated version of Frankenstein’s monster with a more sympathetic eye toward the undead creation. The film is filled with excellent performances and well done makeup effects, although I wish the effects had been a bit more elaborate. Fassenden manages to give the audience something different from the commonly remade source material. While the plot does a great job of focusing on the “monster,” the eventual shift to focusing on the doctor messes with the pacing of the film and ultimately confuses who the protagonist is. It is still a very well made film, but it likely would have been stronger if Adam had been the primary focus of the story.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10

Satanic Panic

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Sam is strapped for cash, so she takes a job delivering pizzas. After a terrible first day, she makes one last delivery to a rich part of town. After the customer stiffs her on the tip, she finds her way into the house and in the middle of a Satanic cult. Now they want her for their virgin sacrifice.

One of the most anticipated films of this year’s Portland Horror Film Festival is Satanic Panic. The film is directed by Chelsea Stardust (All That We Destroy, Seeing Green), who has been making quite a splash in the horror industry this year. The story came from both Ted Geoghegan (Mohawk, We Are Still Here) and Grady Hendrix (Mohawk), with Hendrix helming the script. I went into the film blind to the plot and actors, but it was impossible to escape all the buzz around this film. I had heard so many great things, and luckily the film did not disappoint.

Satanic Panic takes on a classic 80’s feel. The idea of “satanic panic” was prevalent in the 80’s, plus the film is equal parts gore and laughs. It plays perfectly into the idea that people are rich got that way by making a deal with the devil. The plot follows Sam, who is the sweetest, kindest, most innocent young woman without being annoying. The audience watches as her first day as a pizza delivery girl goes from bad, to worse, to deadly. The resulting chaos is a perfect mix of gore and humor as Sam tries to avoid becoming a virgin sacrifice. Despite her innocent nature, Sam has a knack for getting herself into trouble and then accidentally getting out of trouble in unexpected ways. Her interactions with the cult members are hilarious and the dynamics within the cult are even more hilarious. Watching as Sam tries to stay alive is highly entertaining and takes the audience down some unexpected paths.

I mentioned before that I went into this film blind, so I was shocked at the star power behind Satanic Panic. The film stars relative newcomer Hayley Griffith (Drew, All My Children) as Sam. She is probably the most sweet and innocent character I have ever seen in a horror film. Yet Griffith does a great job of showing Sam’s inner demons and her surprising ability to get out of dangerous situations. One of the most surprising appearances and performances in the film is from Rebecca Romijn (X-Men, Femme Fatale) as the cult leader, Danica. It’s great to see a female leading the cult, and Romijn is both fierce and hilarious in her role. In a smaller role as Danica’s husband, Jerry O’Connell (Piranha 3D, Stand By Me) makes an appearance as Samuel. His role may be smaller, but O’Connell’s performance is still memorable and brings the laughs. Finally, there is Ruby Modine (Shameless, Happy Death Day) as Danica and Samuel’s daughter, Judy. Judy probably has some of the best lines, and Modine’s deadpan delivery of her outrageous dialogue is sure to make her a crowd favorite. All of the strong female leads give the film a welcomed feminist edge. The entire cast from top to bottom is truly hysterical and had many opportunities to go over the top with their performances, but they straddled the line perfectly.

The film utilizes some fantastic visual effects that also feel reminiscent of the 80’s. Satanic Panic delivers quite a bit of carnage as the cult hunts down their virgin. It’s all very well done, although I wouldn’t necessarily say the guts and gore are realistic. Instead the filmmakers opted to stay with the 80’s feel and make the gore a bit more campy and bright red, which only adds to the humor of the film. There is even a running theme with the use of vibrant red between the gore and the outfits worn by the cult. It is a simple identifier to show the audience who is evil that packs a visual punch. On top of that the film has some gorgeous set design and even a bit of creepy creature design, making the film as stunning as it is funny.

Satanic Panic is a delightful gore-fest that delivers side-splitting laughs horror fans will absolutely adore. It further proves 2019 is becoming the year of Chelsea Stardust. The characters, the humor, the blood and guts, and the various twists and turns are perfectly balanced in this crowd-pleasing film. It is also the kind of film that is best seen on the big screen where you can laugh out loud along with the audience. You can still catch it on the big screen while Satanic Panic is still on it’s festival run, then it will be released in theaters and VOD on September 6th.

OVERALL RATING: 9.5/10

Stay Out Stay Alive

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A group of friends goes on a camping trip. While on a nighttime stroll through the woods, one of the friends falls into an old mine shaft. When the rest of the group finds her, they also discover gold in the mine. They decide to mine what gold they can, but as each of them feels the power of greed and paranoia, it soon becomes clear something supernatural is at work.

Stay Out Stay Alive had it’s world premier at the Portland Horror Film Festival. While he is known for his visual effects work in films such as Iron Man and Star Trek, this is Dean Yurke’s feature film debut as writer and director. Stay Out Stay Alive is noted as being based on a true story. I was lucky enough to hear Yurke speak about his film at the festival (and he is an absolutely delightful human). He explained the true aspects of the film are almost split into two parts; half of the truth is a true Native American curse, the other half is people often disappear or die in caves and mines. This inspiration lead to a tension filled slow-burn with some great frights thrown in the mix.

The plot follows a group of five friends. When they stumble upon the mine, the girl who has fallen in is trapped under a rock, but they all choose to dig for the gold before finding help since what they are doing is illegal. What starts out innocently enough quickly escalates as the group becomes paranoid, greedy, and deadly. One of the things I really love about the plot in Stay Out Stay Alive is that there is a supernatural element, but it isn’t the true threat. The curse is only really a punishment rather than a murderous force. It is the friends who end up being the true danger as their lust for gold grows exponentially. This aspect of Stay Out Stay Alive is vital because it makes it clear the Native Americans are not the villains of the film. The film ultimately becomes a commentary on things like greed, the destruction of sacred land, and the murder of Native Americans.

Often times, smaller budget indie horror films are hit or miss when it comes to the acting. The performances across the board in Stay Out Stay Alive are fantastic. One stand out is Brandon Wardle (Frisky, Bumblebee) as Reese. Wardle’s portrayal of Reese is truly disturbing as he goes from a typical jock to completely paranoid as his greed takes over. The change can be seen through both his performance and also in his body language and facial expressions. Another strong performance comes from Brie Mattson (Eastwick, D-Railed) as Bridget. Similar to Wardle’s performance, Mattson shows Bridget as she goes from the stereotype of a ditzy blonde to the surprising voice of reason in the group. Equally entertaining to watch are Sage Mears (Half-Dragon Sanchez), Christina July Kim (Dropping the S Bomb), William Romano-Pugh (January Jaguar), and the ever-amazing Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator) as Ranger Susanna. The way all the actors play off of each other helps to build the tension throughout the film.

With Yurke’s background in visual effect, it’s no wonder Stay Out Stay Alive has some stunning visual aspects. The first thing audiences will notice is the interesting camera work and cinematography. Yurke works in some unique angles and framing that is unlike what I have seen in other films. He perfectly uses nature as a mechanism to build suspense without the need for elaborate effects. The CGI effects Yurke does use are subtle. It allows for the supernatural elements to enhance the tension from the friends’ strained relationships rather than being the focus. There is one bigger effect saved for the climax of the film. It is still somewhat subtle, but it creates a compelling image for the audience that is spine-chilling.

Stay Out Stay Alive is a suspenseful descent into the power of greed that shows Yurke’s potential as a filmmaker. Not only is the film bubbling with tension, but it also sends a powerful underlying moral and social message to the audience. Yurke smartly opted for more subtle effect, despite his visual background, which allowed the characters and the suspense to carry the plot. The film also boasts a terrific ensemble cast, as well as the star-power of Barbara Crampton. This was not a film I went to the Portland Horror Film Festival knowing anything about, but it is definitely one I recommend horror fans seek out.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

Boar

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There are many things that can kill you in Australia. In one remote part of the outback, there is a wild boar on the loose. This isn’t your average wild boar and it is out for blood. One family unwittingly wandered into the beast’s territory. They are in for the fight of their lives.

I remember first hearing about Boar a few years ago, but then it drifted off my radar. Now, it is being released as a Shudder exclusive. The film is written and directed by Chris Sun of Charlie’s Farm fame, which makes the reference to Charlie’s Farm in this film even more hilarious. I’m generally a fan of the killer animal subgenre of horror. Fans of other killer animal flicks such as Razorback and Lake Placid will definitely enjoy Boar. The plot is appropriately simple and doesn’t bog itself down by creating an elaborate backstory for why the boar is so huge. Instead, the focus is on the ensuing carnage caused by the boar and the people it terrorizes.

While the focus of Boar is clearly the savage kills, it does a surprisingly good job of including character development. There are two families who get the most screen time. They are introduced in fairly organic ways and the audience is given time to get to know them. This is an important aspect of horror films because if the audience doesn’t care if the characters live or die, then the tension and suspense will be lost. Yet the filmmakers wisely placate the boar’s (and the audience’s) thirst for blood by throwing in a few kills of random characters along the way.

Almost all of the main characters are likable, with one exception, but the performances are just okay. Audiences don’t necessarily expect Oscar-worthy performances from killer animal horror films, so there isn’t anything wrong with that. My personal favorite performance is Melissa Tkautz (Game Room, Houses) as Sasha. She is the independent and strong-willed bar owner in the small town. Tkautz makes Sasha an enjoyable character by making her both sassy and charming. Probably the most well-known actor in Boar is Bill Moseley (The Devil’s Rejects, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2) as Bruce. Bruce is the lone American of the group and he’s basically a kindhearted dork. This is a nice departure for Moseley as most horror fans know him as a villain. Nathan Jones (Charlie’s Farm, Mad Max: Fury Road) plays Bruce’s brother-in-law, Bernie. Jones is a beast of a man, which makes it hilarious to see how the men fear him yet he is so sweet to all the ladies. The dynamics between each of the main characters draws the audience in so we want them to outlive the boar.

The effects team behind Boar uses a combination of practical and CGI effects. For most of the shots of the massive beast the effects are entirely practical. These effects are honestly a bit on the hokey side, but even that seems to be par for the course when it comes to killer animal movies. The practical effects for the boar are still impressive just because of the sheer size it had to be built in. For the scenes where there is more wide shot action, such as when the boar runs around, the team went with CGI. The CGI isn’t quite as good as the practical effects, but it doesn’t detract from the overall appeal of the creature design.

Boar delivers on laughs, excitement, and one killer animal. The plot is simple, but gives the audience enough to keep them engaged. This is helped by having a group of likable characters. Much of the acting and the effects are average, but the film makes up for it by being fun to watch. If the allure of watching a killer boar on the loose isn’t enough to get people to watch this film, then the star-power behind Bill Moseley’s name definitely will.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10

The Perfection

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Charlotte was once a musical prodigy, but she had to leave school to take care of her sick mother. Years later, she seeks out her old teachers and meets the young cellist who replaced her. The two young women become instantly connected. From the moment they meet the pair are entangled in a twisted spiral leading them into chaos and madness.

I’m going to be fairly vague with this review because it is nearly impossible to go more in-depth without giving away spoilers. Eric C. Charmelo (Supernatural, Ringer) and Nicole Snyder (Supernatural, Ringer) co-wrote The Perfection along with director Richard Shepard (Girls, The Matador). This trio creates a truly engrossing film with fascinating, dynamic characters. From the moment the film starts the audience is drawn into Charlotte’s story. When she meets the other cellist, Elizabeth, there is a connection between them that is impossible to ignore. Yet there is an underlying tension that builds like a ball of snow; slow and subtle at first, then a giant thundering mass that threatens everyone in its path.

There is so much to enjoy with the plot of The Perfection. It all centers around the need to be perfect and the pressures, both internal and external, that compound that pressure until it causes a person to implode. This is one of the many aspects of the plot that feels both poignant and relevant to things going on in the world today. The film is broken into chapters, and each chapter brings an all new revelation that is sure to shock audiences. The numerous twists and turns perfectly keep you on the edge of your seat. Every time I thought I had figured out what was happening in the film I was proven to be dead wrong. I have never seen a film with so many fantastic twists that still tells a compelling and cohesive story.

Both of the female leads in this film deliver powerhouse performances. Allison Williams (Girls, Get Out) dazzles as Charlotte. On the surface Charlotte seems like a well-adjusted young woman, but there is an intensity that bubbles up from under the surface. Williams shows, yet again, that this is the genre she was born to act in. Logan Browning (Bratz, Dear White People) plays the magnetic Elizabeth, who also goes by Lizzie. She is the polar opposite of Charlotte as she is edgier and more outgoing. This is the first film I’ve ever seen Browning in, and she absolutely blew me away. Both of these characters are incredibly well written, and the chemistry between Williams and Browning is absolutely electric.

As if this film doesn’t have enough going for it, the visuals are also amazing. Most of what makes this film stunning to look at is through simple framing and lighting. Some of the most beautiful scenes to look at are when either Charlotte or Lizzie are playing the cello. These scenes are shot in a way that allows the audience to almost feel part of the music, moving between close ups of the player’s hands and wide shots where the player is perfectly framed. One unexpected aspect of the visuals is some very subtle CGI work. It is so subtle and so well done that it is hard to even tell that what you’re looking at isn’t practically done. It allows for some rather shocking and disturbing imagery in an otherwise gorgeous film.

The Perfection lives up to its name by delivering a suspenseful film with endless twists that still result in a complex, cohesive story. It is the kind of plot that not only keeps you guessing, but leaves you speechless. I found myself thinking about the film long after it ended. The filmmakers create movie magic, and the performances by both Williams and Browning absolutely blew me away. My one concern is whether or not this film will be as effective upon a second viewing since the filmmakers rely so heavily on the twists and turns. I do recommend audiences go in as blind as possible and avoid the trailer, as it does show some images that could spoil a few of the twists. Instead, be sure to catch it on Netflix as soon as you can. Looking back on the film, I think it is safe to say that it is my favorite film of 2019… so far.

OVERALL RATING: 9.5/10