movie

Room for Rent

unnamed

A recently widowed woman named Joyce realizes her late husband left her with nearly nothing to live on. To bring in some money she decides to rent out a room to guests as her own little BnB. When one mysterious guest takes up residence, Joyce becomes obsessed with him, leading her down a dangerous path.

Room for Rent is directed by Tommy Stovall (Aaron’s Blood) and it is writer Stuart Flack’s debut film. This thriller is unique in that the entire film centers around an elderly woman. It is very rare, especially in the horror genre, for the protagonist to be a woman of this age. What makes this even better is the filmmakers chose horror legend Lin Shaye to play the lead. The film begins in the moments after Joyce’s husband has died in an accident. In the days after his death, she discovers there is almost no money in their bank account, so she must come up with a way to earn some money. That is when she discovers the glorious world of renting out rooms online a la Air BnB, VRBO, and the like.

As Joyce goes from timid widow to entrepreneur, we also see the arrival of a handsome guest bring out a second sexual awakening in her. She changes from modest, monochromatic clothing to more revealing and brightly colored outfits to try and seduce the new man in her life. It ends up being an interesting character study of this woman, who is much more than she appears to be, as she becomes utterly obsessed with her guest. That being said, her character still is underdeveloped. Joyce’s motivation is unclear throughout the film, although one could assume her ultimate goal is to find someone to love her unconditionally.

While the basic premise of Room for Rent works in many ways, there are still a number of problems with the film. The look into Joyce’s psyche is great, yet underdeveloped. I also believe this is one of an increasingly popular subgenre of horror focusing on Air BnB type rentals and the horrible things that can happen in these places. However, there are just far too many subplot points that are hinted at, but the audience never gets a satisfying payoff. One example is that the renter, Bob, clearly has some very dark and illegal history that has brought him to this place. It is vaguely mentioned throughout the film in a way that implies it is important to the plot, but then his background is never explained and never lives up to that implied importance. This happens quite a bit when it comes to Joyce as well. She is a compulsive liar, but the audience never discovers the truth behind many of her lies. It also feels like the film hints that she may have had something to do with her husband’s death and yet there is no payoff at the end. The filmmakers seemed to have wanted to leave a lot left to the imagination of the audience, but they simply went too vague on many plot points. It unfortunately ends up also affecting the pace of the film, making it feel very slow and meandering with only a few moments of tension thrown in.

If it weren’t for Lin Shaye (Insidious, The Final Wish) in the lead as Joyce, the film wouldn’t have been as enjoyable to watch. Shaye is a force in the horror industry and she is absolutely delightful to watch. Time and time again I have wished to see her as the leading lady in a horror film, so in a way I got my wish with Room for Rent. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite live up to Shaye’s stay power. She gives a fantastic performance and often shines beyond what was written for her, but even her shine can’t completely erase some of the weaker plot points and dialogue. Oliver Rayon (In Transit) and Valeska Miller (First List) deliver passable performances, although I think the issues come more from some of the odd character choices by the filmmakers rather than their portrayals of those characters.

Room for Rent has all the right pieces to be a great thriller, but it fails to deliver on its promise. I wanted to love this film and I definitely tried. The idea of an older woman being the lead is one that many filmmakers shy away from, and I commend these filmmakers for making the attempt. It simply leaves many plot points too vague and doesn’t clearly convey what is driving Joyce with every decision she makes. It makes the film meander and move at too leisurely a pace to create any real tension. Lin Shaye helps to make this film more enjoyable to watch and I know many horror fans have wanted her to be the leading lady of a horror film for years. Yet even Shaye’s star power is dimmed in this otherwise dreary film.

OVERALL RATING: 5/10

The Silence

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A primeval species that hunts by sound is accidentally unleashed from a cave system. As they spread and take down city after city, one family flees in hopes of reaching an area away from cities. The journey is treacherous and even reaching a remote cabin isn’t enough to keep them safe. The family will not only have to keep each other safe from the creatures, but also from other people.

The Silence is one of a slew of films to recently be released with similar concepts including A Quiet Place and Bird Box. There are definitely similarities between this film and last year’s hit, A Quiet Place, but the novel by Tim Lebbon this film is based on was released in 2015. There is the same basic premise of a family trying to survive in a world where deadly creatures can hunt by sound. The similarities continue as the film focuses on a daughter who is deaf and her relationship with her father. The plots diverge from each other from there, but it is impossible to ignore the similarities.

Brothers Carey and Shane Van Dyke (Chernobyl DiariesThe Sacred) took on adapting Lebbon’s novel for the screen while John R. Leonetti directed (Annabelle, Wish Upon). Despite the multiple similarities between The Silence and other films, there are still some differences that set it apart. One of the biggest differences is that audiences will immediately know the origin of these creatures. Their existence isn’t shrouded in mystery, giving the film almost a more scientific monster movie feel at first (although this part will likely also make horror fans think of films such as The Descent and The Cave). Events quickly escalate after the creatures are released. The audience gets brief introduction to the various characters before they are thrown into the end of the world. Something that makes the daughter in this film different is that she only became deaf three years ago, yet she adapted to her new state of being quickly. There are many instances that force the audience to think what they would do in a similar situation as the family is forced to make numerous difficult decisions. It makes some of the more intense scenes evoke emotions one wouldn’t expect. These are the scenes that will likely stand out the most in the minds of viewers.

The thing that had the potential to make this film stand out the most is the introduction of a bizarre cult. This could have been the most interesting part of the film and it could have added a lot of tension to the film. Unfortunately, it’s never fully developed. The cult isn’t even introduced until the third act of the film. It ends up coming across as an afterthought used simply to make the climax of the film more exciting, but it doesn’t necessarily achieve that.

The Silence is a star-studded film with many familiar faces, a few being familiar for other roles in Netflix original projects. Kiernan Shipka (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, The Blackcoat’s Daughter) stars as Ally. Because Ally is deaf she is able to notice things other are not, such as warning signs of danger. Shipka for the most part delivers a great performance, but there are a few instances where she appears to react to sound despite her character being deaf. Stanley Tucci (The Hunger Games, Spotlight) plays Ally’s father, Hugh. Overall Tucci’s portrayal of Hugh is interesting to watch as he does what he can to protect his family from harm. The biggest issue I have with his performance is likely a choice made by the filmmakers; for a dad who cares so much about the well being of his daughter, he barely ever uses sign language with her. In fact, many conversations with Ally and Hugh make it easy to forget that Ally is deaf because neither character signs very much with each other. They do make a point of saying Ally can read lips, but it still seems like an odd choice. The only time sign language is really used is when the family is in danger and needs to communicate while being completely silent.

There are many interesting visuals in The Silence. The creatures themselves are brought to life with CGI. Considering they are from a dark, sealed off cave, they have the right look one would expect. These things are relatively small, look almost like a cross between a bat and a small pterodactyl-like creature, have pale skin, are blind, and use sound to find their prey. Some of the most gorgeous images in the film are seeing the creatures fly and swarm from afar. It ends up being both terrifying and beautiful all at once. To add to the terror, there is an unexpected amount of practical effects gore throughout the film. Unfortunate victims of the creatures tend to get torn to shreds, and the filmmakers wisely chose not to hold anything back when showing the aftermath.

The Silence has the potential to bring audiences something new and terrifying, but it sadly fails to surpass other films with similar plots. There are some elements that keep the audience interested such as decent performances, a well-known cast, great effects for the creatures, and a healthy dose of blood and gore. What ultimately holds this film back is numerous underdeveloped aspects of the plot. This is the most obvious with the sparing use of sign language, despite the main character being deaf, and with the cult not even being introduced until the third act. The film is entertaining enough to be worth a watch, but it doesn’t do enough to stick with viewers for long.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10

Black Site

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The Elder Gods once ruled over the human race, until humans found a way to deport them to another world. A secret military base is dedicated to finding, catching, and deporting the few remaining Elder Gods on Earth. When an Elder God who killed one soldier’s parents is caught, the site is thrown into chaos and it is up to her to send it back to where it came from.

When I pressed play to start this film I had fairly low expectations. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up enjoying Black Site. Tom Paton (Redwood) wrote and directed this Lovecraftian sci-fi thriller. The film wisely begins with a bit of text to establish context for the audience, making it much easier to understand what is happening when the film really begins. We are then introduced to a young girl as her parents are killed by an Elder God. Years later that same girl is a young woman working at the Black Site. The plot is interesting because it brings in ideas created by Lovecraft with other worlds and Elder Gods with long tentacles, but it also has a woman going through internal turmoil when the god who killed her parents is captured. Things become even more tension-filled with a group of highly trained humans infiltrate the site. They are clearly trying to get to the Elder God, but why they want to reach him is less clear. This aspect of the plot gives the film an 80’s John Carpenter feel such as Escape From New York. It is one part Lovecraft, one part Carpenter, yet still feels like a fresh take by Patton.

While the general plot and various twists and turns it takes are very well done, there are some parts of the dialogue that are less successful. Specifically, there is something about the two main female characters and how their dialogue is written that comes across as unnatural. These characters are written so they say a lot of witty one-liners and talk tough, but there isn’t a lot to their speech other than that, especially with the young female protagonist. She is written in a way that seems like her only mode is sarcastic one-liners. It almost comes across as if her lines were written for Arnold Schwarzenegger. This was definitely an aspect of the film that stood out and not in a good way. I still think the rest of the plot is well done and the dialogue for the Elder God is fantastic.

The acting in Black Site falters in a few scenes, but as a whole the cast is entertaining to watch. The film stars Samantha Schnitzler (Viking Siege, The Sitter) as Ren Reid. Ren has to be tough because of her work and she uses that toughness to mask the trauma of seeing an Elder God kill her parents. Schnitzler does a great job of occasionally letting Ren’s inner vulnerability break through as she tries to get to the god, but at the same time the writing hinders the performance a bit. She does what she can with the one-liners, but there are many times where they fall a bit flat. The performance that will likely stand out in the minds of audience members is Kris Johnson (Airborne, Who Needs Enemies) as the Elder God Erebus trapped inside a human body. Johnson is lucky to have some of the best dialogue in the film, but his delivery is what sells his portrayal of the god. It truly feels like there is something very powerful trapped inside the man on the screen.

There are many artistic elements that work very well throughout the film. The special effects are surprisingly well done. The CGI is primarily used to create the imagery Ren sees in visions, which includes seeing what the Elder Gods look like in their true form. There are also more subtle ones used to show the high tech security of the site as well as what appears to be electricity that comes off Erebus when he is trapped in the man’s body. Many of the effects also look great because of stunning cinematography and iconic use of lighting. The score for the film is also fantastic. It sounds as if a John Carpenter film and a 1950’s sci-fi film had a musical baby. All of these elements help to enhance the plot while also moving it forward.

Black Site is a modern sci-fi tale with elements of Carpenter and Lovecraft while also having heart. I was pleasantly surprised with the film, especially when it came to the beautiful effects and the excellent score. The plot itself is also quite fascinating as it slowly reveals many secrets, although there are times where the dialogue detracts from the plot a bit. This also affects the acting in some scenes, but as a whole the cast does a great job. Black Site delivers plenty of entertainment to the audience and it makes me interested to see what Paton does next.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Pet Sematary (2019)

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The Creeds move to a rural farmhouse in Maine to live a simpler life away from the city. They soon discover that a burial ground sits in the woods on their property where children bury their beloved pets. Yet it’s what lies beyond the little pet cemetery they should be worried about.

Depending on how you look at the film, it is both an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel and a remake of the 1989 film of the same name. This latest iteration is written by Jeff Buhler (The Prodigy, Midnight Meat Train) and directed by duo Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer of Starry Eyes fame. While the film is based on Stephen King’s book, it took some liberties in the plot to create something a bit new for audiences. One thing this film did a great job of is capturing the mysticism of the Micmac burial ground beyond the pet cemetery. This is done by including a lot of the mythology from the book that was lost in the 1989 film such as the history of the land, the eeriness of the journey to the burial ground, and the legend of the wendigo. The filmmakers also emphasized the eeriness of this place through atmosphere and tension. It captures this aspect of the book very well while also conveying the grief the Creed family experiences after losing a child. Fans of Stephen King will notice a few cleverly placed Easter eggs along the way as well. These nods to the original literature, and to King himself, show the audience the filmmakers are doing their best to honor the source material, even though there are a few major changes to the plot.

Another successful aspect is the terror the film brings. Most of this is achieved through artistic means. The strange atmosphere of the swamp and the burial ground often is shrouded in darkness and made eerie with fog and strange noises. This is thanks primarily to fantastic set design and beautiful cinematography. From the pet cemetery itself to the Micmac burial ground, it is quite haunting to look at and only gets more eerie as the film progresses. The practical effects of the film are also absolutely stunning. The makeup effects for the living dead characters, even Church the cat, are perfectly done and utterly frightening. While I believe the daughter would be very disfigured after the crash we see on screen, I do still love how they were able to make her skin look gaunt and translucent with blue veins showing through the skin. The makeup effects on Zelda, who fans of the book and 1989 film will no doubt remember, are especially grotesque. They managed to not only make Zelda one of the most terrifying aspects of the film, but they did it both with amazing prosthetics and simply through the sounds she makes. It all combines to make a nightmarish film.

While I believe Pet Sematary does a great job of creating a dark and frightening film focusing on the burial ground, there are certain aspects of the plot that don’t work as well for me. One of the biggest issues is simply poor advertising. While I know this isn’t necessarily the fault of the filmmakers, it is still enough of a problem to be worth mentioning. In the film there are two parts where there is great effort and time put into building up certain scenes. This build up is always a reference to the 1989 film, leading the audience to expect one thing to happen, before suddenly having something unexpected happen. This is a brilliant tactic, yet the advertising ruined it. In both of these instances the “big twists” were already revealed in the trailer. I can only imagine the shock audiences would have experienced if these aspects had been kept under wraps. It ends up taking all the tension out of the scenes because we already know the scenes aren’t going to end up the way they appear. Another problem I have with the film is simply how it ended. I won’t get into specifics, but I will say not only did the film just end on an odd note, but I also feel like it completely negates the mythology created by King. This mythology is even referenced towards the beginning of the film, making the ending fall flat.

It is difficult not to compare the 1989 film to the 2019 Pet Sematary, especially when it comes to the acting. The 1989 film is great, don’t get me wrong, but there are some highly overacted moments. Luckily, this film has outstanding performances. Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, Everest) plays Dr. Louis Creed. The emotion behind Clarke’s performance is heartbreaking to watch. Louis is such an endearing, although misguided character, and Clarke portrays him very well. The true breakout star of the film is Jeté Laurence (The Snowman, The Ranger) as Ellie Creed. The change in Laurence’s performance between when Ellie is alive vs undead is absolutely shocking and breathtaking. It is almost as if it is two different people playing the same character. More fantastic performances come from John Lithgow (Interstellar, Twilight Zone: The Movie) as the kindly old neighbor Jud and Amy Seimetz (Alien: Covenant, You’re Next) as the death-fearing wife Rachel Creed.

Pet Sematary manages to breath some new life into a story horror fans know and love. Kölsch and Widmyer’s directing skills perfectly capture the mystical elements present in King’s book, as well as the grief of losing a loved one. The film fell prey to some very poor advertising choices, revealing the secrets of the updated plot all too soon. On top of that, the ending is a very odd choice that will most likely polarize many lovers of the book and original film. I for one, thought the ending was a bizarre choice that didn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the film. Luckily, the amazing scares, gorgeous practical effects, and superb performances are incredibly enjoyable to watch. These successful elements make Pet Sematary a must-watch film.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

Book of Monsters

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When Sophie was little she thought she saw her mom get killed by a monster. Now, on the eve of her 18th birthday, Sophie and her friends are throwing a party. Her mom’s old monster book resurfaces only to be used by a mystery woman to conjure up some terrifying monsters to wreak havoc on the party guests. It’s up to Sophie and her friends to stop the monsters before they are unleashed on the world.

This gory monster comedy feels like a love letter to horror films of the 80’s. Written by Paul Butler (Nothing Man, The Creature Below) and directed by Stewart Sparke (The Creature Below), Book of Monsters brings campy fun with what appear to be nods to The Evil Dead films while also delivering an interesting and unique plot. The cold open of this film introduces the audience to a young Sophie as her mom reads her a bedtime story from a rather odd book filled with drawings of strange monsters. Sophie then witnesses a monster kill her mother, but of course no one believes her. This quickly sets the tone for the film while also establishing the main character, Sophie. As a teen she is a bit of an outsider; she has a couple close friends, is shy and quiet, and it quickly becomes apparent that she is interested in girls. Her birthday party is the catalyst for the carnage which ensues on the unsuspecting guests.

On the surface Book of Monsters is simply a splatterfest where people are killed left and right and the monsters are a bit on the cheesy side. There are also some odd choices in terms of character development, such as a mean girl who is a bit over-the-top in her mean ways and Sophie quickly goes from meek to warrior woman at the drop of a hat. While some of these aspects can take away from the film, I believe they ultimately have a purpose. It all goes back to paying homage to horror films of the 80’s. The book filled with monsters and spells is reminiscent of The Evil Dead, the monsters themselves can be a throwback to many older films, the mean girl reminded me of Judy from Sleepaway Camp, and Sophie herself is like most virginal final girls of that time who fight for survival. Even the cast, who are all supposed to be teenagers, look like they are between the age of 25-30 just like in 80’s films. What makes Book of Monsters stand out from other films that honor the films of the past is the mythology it creates. Not only are the monsters unique, but the filmmakers gradually build on Sophie’s connection to them in an interesting way that moves the plot forward while also giving plenty of opportunity to create a sequel (or even a prequel) with this mythology.

The performances are a bit of a mixed bag, some being very good and others being over the top. That being said, I believe the range of performances as a deliberate choice by the filmmakers to stay in-keeping with the 80’s nostalgia. Lyndsey Craine (The Creature Below) stars as Sophie. While her character arc is a bit abrupt, Craine’s performance as Sophie stays true to the character. She starts out very shy and sweet, but when her friends are in danger she turns into a monster killer. Craine is also the most believable as a teenager. Two actors who are not believable as teenagers are Michaela Longden (The Creature Below, Audax) as Mona and Anna Dawson (1921, The Creature Below) as Arya. Mona is one of Sophie’s best friends and a bit of a rebel. What I enjoy most about Longden’s performance is her ability to play multiple characters and the way she injects humor into her performance. Arya is the bully of the film. She is so over the top in how terrible she is to Sophie, and others, that Dawson’s performance also comes across as out there. This seems intentional as many of the bullies of 80’s films act quite similarly to Arya. No matter where the performances fall on a scale of good to not so great, it is still easy to see that the actors had fun making this film.

Between the monsters and the gore, it is impossible to ignore the effects in Book of Monsters. Remembering that this film is meant to be like a campy 80’s horror flick, the practical effects definitely pay homage to that era. The filmmakers wisely avoided using CGI. The heavy use of blood and severed body parts is both disgusting and humorous at the same time. When it comes to the monsters themselves, there are some interesting choices made. A couple of the creature designs rely heavily on cloaks to mask much of the body, allowing the SFX team to focus more on the faces of the monsters and the weapons or body parts they use to kill the teens. It can be a bit unfortunate looking at the monsters and realizing the bodies are mostly ignored in the design process, but it still fits with the low-budget 80’s aesthetic. There is one creature the team clearly took more time and money to create, and the design is very unique. The only creature design I don’t like is for the “djinn.” Instead of having a true monster look, the djinn looks more like a ghost from a J-horror film. This could potentially be another nod or homage to that subgenre of horror film, but it seems out of place with the rest of the 80’s style.

Book of Monsters certainly delivers on the monsters and gore with a classic 80’s aesthetic, while also giving audiences a fun and compelling story. The plot feels reminiscent of other films while still including new elements. The actors may not all deliver the best performances, but there is obviously a lot of heart and fun that went into the film. Book of Monsters certainly isn’t a film for everyone, but if you appreciate classic 80’s horror films with campy practical effects then this is the film for you. It is definitely a love-letter to the misfits and monster lovers.

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10

Us

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A family takes a trip to their vacation home to unwind. An impromptu trip to Santa Cruz forces the mother to remember childhood trauma. Unfortunately, that trauma follows the family home when they are visited by a deadly family of doppelgängers. Outside their door, people everywhere are being attacked by people who look just like them. The family will have to face off against their look-a-likes in order to survive.

This is only the second feature film written and directed by Jordan Peele, but with this film he has solidified his status as a master of horror. After the success of the Oscar-winning hit, Get Out, Peele decided to go in a different direction with Us. In this film, every American has a doppelgänger who lives underground. These people decided it’s their time to live in the sun and venture out to kill their topside look-a-likes. When the doppelgängers come for the Wilson family, the audience sees something a bit different. The danger is even more grave, and the doppelgängers are absolutely terrifying. The entire premise is disturbing and has edge-of-your-seat tension from start to finish. Peele perfectly breaks up some of that tension with hilariously timed humor. It gives the audience a small bit of relief in the most intense moments without fully taking them out of the moment.

On the surface the film is a thrillingly murderous ride, but upon deeper inspection there is also an interesting social message. Peele is known for including racial issues in Get Out. Now, with Us, Peele explores issues of socioeconomic classes. He includes many different layers to convey this message, some being more obvious than others. The social message combined with subtle clues and Easter eggs throughout the film have come to be a signature of Peele’s filmmaking style. It gives Us a sense of longevity; the more you think about it, the more everything makes sense and the more you watch the film the more details you notice that you may have missed before. Many of these smaller details offer clues for the audience that reveal the various twists and turns the plot takes. If you pay close enough attention to these clues you might be able to figure out certain aspects of the film before they’re revealed. The only potential downside to Peele’s filmmaking style is that certain aspects of the plot may require a bit of research after watching the film in order to make sense of it. More dedicated cinephiles won’t mind this, as they likely do it anyways, but the more casual movie-goers could see this is an annoyance.

The single most compelling aspect of Us is the array of fantastic performances from every single actor. These performances are all the more amazing because almost everyone plays two characters. The shining star of the film is Lupita Nyong’o (Black Panther, 12 Years a Slave) as both Adelaide and her look-a-like Red. Nyong’o’s portrayal of both characters is truly spectacular. Adelaide is a very cautious person after her childhood trauma, and it is that mentality that makes her more prepared for the danger coming for her family. Red is also different from the other doppelgängers and that difference is almost immediately noticeable. The intensity behind Nyong’o’s portrayal of Red is absolutely haunting. Her performance as both characters is so perfect it’s difficult to pick which portrayal I enjoy more. The rest of the Wilson family is also made of of great performances. Winston Duke (Black Panther, Person of Interest) plays Gabe and Abraham, Shahadi Wright Joseph (Hairspray Live!) plays Zora and Umbrae, and Evan Alex (Mani) plays Jason and Pluto. All of them do a stunning job of clearly portraying two different characters that are connected, yet one is much more primal and animalistic than the other.

There are many great stylistic choices made throughout the film. The first one audiences will likely notice is the use of music. Peele tends to use music throughout the film to inject humor into various parts of the film. The songs used are already iconic and well known, but the way he uses them will stand out in the audiences’ minds even after the film ends. The costumes and hair also add an interesting visual element to the film. Specifically, the doppelgängers all have an iconic outfit they all wear that makes them stand out. They even all have a signature weapon in the form of large golden scissors. The doppelgängers all have an unkept look to them. Their hair is messy or greasy, their skin is ashen and pale, they have dark circles under their eyes. The overall look helps to reinforce the mythology behind these characters created by Peele.

Us stabs through the supposed “sophomore slump,” allowing Peele to give audiences a bloody and tension filled film with an underlying social message. In all honesty, this is a very difficult film to review without getting into layers and layers of spoilers. If you pay attention to the cleverly hidden clues, then the film will not only make more sense, but it will also allow the audience to figure things out before they happen. After watching the film, I highly recommend reading through the numerous articles that dissect these clues, then see the film again and again. This is a film that will definitely improve with each watch because of those small details. Combine that with the absolutely perfect performances and the result is an award-worthy film that proves Peele is a talented filmmaker. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10*

*Clarification of my score: Based on the review I gave the film, my number rating may seem low. This is the rating I would give the film based on my initial reaction leaving the theater. I took a few days to think about the film and research a few things before writing this review, so even now I would rate the film higher than my initial reaction.  As I said before, this is a film that gets better over time and with more viewings. 

Starfish

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After losing her best friend, Aubrey secludes herself in her friend’s apartment. She awakes the next day to discover the world as she knows it is coming to an end. People have disappeared and there are strange creatures lurking outside the door. Aubrey finds a mix tape made by her deceased friend with clues as to how to survive this strange new world, and perhaps even save it.

A.T. White brings a powerful story to the screen in his first feature-length film, Starfish. The focus of the plot is grief. Aubrey loses her friend and from that moment her life is changed forever. The film includes elements of a dramatic character study, a Lovecraftian apocalypse, and fantastic music. Each aspect is integral to the film. White takes the audience on a journey through Aubrey’s grief, going through each of the traditional five stages; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages are emphasized by the end of the world happening all around Aubrey and the strange beings that have crossed into our world. Her complete isolation from the rest of the world allows the audience to focus on Aubrey as she goes on her emotional and sometimes dangerous journey in which reality bends, breaks, and unravels.

Music plays a vital role in her journey as well in the form of tapes hidden by her deceased friend. Each tape contains a song with an embedded signal that has something to do with what is happening to the world. This gives Aubrey a goal to work towards and a mystery to solve. It propels forward, forcing her to face her grief and things she has done that she feels guilty about. The tapes could even save Aubrey’s life. All of these elements combine in perfect symphony.

The plot alone is haunting, beautiful, and fascinating, but what makes it even more compelling is White’s inspiration for it. White has said that he lost a friend to cancer and experienced grief like what we see Aubrey go through. The film allowed him to visually work through that grief. What’s even more amazing is that White intends to donate all the money he makes from Starfish to Cancer Research. It shows the passion he has for both his film and the cause. That passion can also easily be seen in every last detail in the film’s plot, character, and music.

In a film that focuses entirely on one character, casting is vital. Virginia Gardner (Halloween, Runaways) stars as Aubrey. The pain, loss, and guilt Aubrey experiences is the catalyst for the entire film. Gardner truly dazzles in the role. She is able to grab the attention and the hearts of the audience and hold on tight. The way Gardner portrays Aubrey as she mourns is complicated, relatable, and incredibly raw. This performance alone makes me excited to see what Gardner does in the future.

The many artistic elements of Starfish also bring a lot to the film. The filmmakers used CGI to create the Lovecraftian creatures from another world, as well as the rips in our reality they traveled through. These effects are relatively subtle. The CGI works especially well with the various sets. The film takes place in a landscape that looks very remote and snowy, which offers a beautiful contrast with the effects. There is also a distinct lack of modern technology throughout the film. This allows for the film to exist in a space without a specific time and could have been made in the 80’s as easily as today. Of course, the music is probably the most important artistic element because of how engrained it is in the plot. The score was composed by none other than White himself and he selected the music for the soundtrack as well. Both the score and soundtrack are a focal point of the film and I found myself trying to find the soundtrack online as soon as I finished the film.

Starfish is a stunning and raw journey through the grieving process as the world ends. White beautifully uses his own experience to take the audience through the stages of grief. He also incorporates music and the collision of different worlds to convey the end of Aubrey’s world. It seems to be left up to the audience whether this is a literal or metaphorical apocalypse, but the story is haunting either way. The weight of the film is carried on Gardner’s capable shoulders as she portrays Aubrey as a complicated heroine.  Add the various visual and musical elements, and you have a must-watch film. If that isn’t enough to convince you to see Starfish, see it so you can support a great cause and have your sale go toward Cancer Research.

OVERALL RATING: 9.5/10