Occult

Suspiria (2018)

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Susie Bannion has left her home and family in rural Ohio to pursue her dream of joining a dance academy in Berlin. She has no formal training, yet her dancing captivates Madame Blanc, the headmistress, and she is allowed to join the academy. As the dancers train for a very special performance, strange and violent things begin to happen. Dancers have gone missing, and it seems more and more likely the women running the academy are the ones behind it all.

Screenwriter David Kajganich (The Terror) and director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) have taken the basic premise and characters created by Dario Argento (Suspiria 1977) and Daria Nicolodi (Suspiria 1977) and constructed something absolutely breathtaking. At it’s core, the film is about a dance school run by witches. This is really all the two films have in common. The story created by Kajganich and Guadagnino’s filming style diverge greatly from the original, so I will do my best not to constantly compare the two films.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Suspiria (2018) is how the filmmakers built upon the with mythology. The rules, the dynamics, the magic, and the history is meticulously created in a way that is familiar, yet there is a complexity that adds a sense of mystery to the film. Often times, the intrigue comes from the division among the witches. These witches have a long history that sprang from three witches known as the “mothers.” There is the group who believes Madame Blanc should be in charge, and there is a group who believes the unseen Helena Markos should continue her rule. The witches are using the dancers to work towards a specific goal, and they need Susie to reach that goal. Between some of the dancers putting the pieces together and the division between the witches, there is immediate suspense and tension that carries throughout the film.

The way dance is incorporated into the film is stunning. Suspiria (2018) focuses on contemporary/interpretive dance rather than ballet. It is a wise decision because it allows the filmmakers to bring new meaning into the dance being performed. It isn’t simply a performance the dancers are training for, it is a bigger end-game for the witches. All of the dancers move beautifully through the rehearsals and the final routine.

While the cast holds a couple actresses I have not been a fan of in the past, every single person shines in their own way. Probably the most surprising performance in the film is Dakota Johnson (50 Shades of Grey) as Susie Bannion. While her acting is fine, it’s her dancing that truly blew me away. The filmmakers took a risk hiring an actress over a dancer in such a dance-heavy role, but luckily it payed off. Johnson portrays Susie with a sort of naive grace that develops into something much more powerful, and it is amazing to watch. The standout performance comes from Tilda Swinton (Doctor Strange) playing not one, not two, but three characters! While Swinton is amazing in each role, making them each distinctly unique characters even as she acts through layers of makeup and prosthetics, she is truly amazing as Madame Blanc. Similar to the portrayal of Susie, Madame Blanc has a graceful way about her, yet Blanc’s grace has much more power and authority to it. Swinton proves once again that she can play virtually any role and she is able to entirely transform into any character. The on-screen chemistry between Swinton and Johnson is electric, and their dynamics with the rest of the supporting cast is hypnotizing.

It is difficult to live up to Argento’s visuals, so Guadagnino made the wise decision to go in a different direction. Suspiria (2018) has a very stark palette lacking vibrant colors, which fits in well with the 1977 Berlin setting. The bright colors are instead replaced with bold patterns. The patterns can be found everywhere from the floors to the walls to the clothing. It creates striking and iconic imagery where the meticulous patterns feel reminiscent of the ritualistic choreography of the dances.

The bleak look of the film also goes well with the practical effects. These effects are used in a number of ways. The most prominent use is to turn Swinton into different characters, one of them an elderly man. Old age makeup alone is incredibly difficult to do well. Not only is the old age makeup in this film near-perfect, but it also transforms Swinton into a man. The effects are also used to produce some realistic and disturbing wounds, injuries, and gore. I was quite surprised by the brutality in certain scenes, and the practical effects in those scenes are sublime.

The film is only elevated by the astounding score by Thom Yorke of Radiohead. The score is soft, mysterious, and often times includes sounds from the film itself. One piece, titled “Hooks,” is most notable for incorporating sounds from the film such as sighs, breathing, and the whoosh of hooks through the air (which will make sense if/when you see the film). Yorke also includes a couple songs in which he sings. These songs are especially haunting, and are used at integral scenes where the songs are the perfect accompaniment to the events taking place. I would imagine, after this success, that we will be hearing more of Yorke’s work as a composer of film scores.

Suspiria (2018) is a haunting and ethereal tale of witchcraft, mutilation, and death. Guadagnino and Kajganich were inspired by Suspiria (1977), but they were able to create something new and thrilling with this film. The expanded mythology lends itself to an intriguing plot that will keep audiences guessing. The entire cast of performers deliver stunning acting and dancing skills that mesmerize. Add to that the brilliant visual artistry, including the practical effects, and Yorke’s gorgeous score and the result is a disturbing and beautiful film. This is one you won’t want to miss.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

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Overlord

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D-Day approaches. It is up to a band of American soldiers to infiltrate a remote French village. In this village, the Nazis have set up a communications satellite that must be destroyed before the American planes reach France. As the remaining soldiers make their way into the village, they soon realize the Nazis are up to something more sinister than they could ever have imagined.

Overlord, directed by Julius Avery (Son of a Gun) and written by Billy Ray (The Hunger Games) and Mark L. Smith (The Revenant), certainly packs a punch. The opening sequence is arguably the strongest part of the film, immediately immersing the audience in WWII as the American soldiers fly into France, preparing to parachute to their objective. This scene quickly establishes characters in a claustrophobic setting, then immediately tosses these characters into chaos. Once the surviving soldiers make it to the small French town, the film takes a more quiet, reserved approach as the men try to keep their presence hidden from the Nazis. The filmmakers do an amazing job of slowly revealing what the Nazi’s are doing, bit by bit, leading up to the action-packed climax.

The Nazi regime is known for performing experiments that border the line of being supernatural. What is happening in Overlord gives the audience a glimpse into what those experiments might have been. The gruesome results of what the Nazis do in the film add frightening and gory thrills to the film. The plot hints at why the Nazi’s chose this location, as well as how they were able to achieve creating these monsters, but not fully. I appreciate the filmmakers not going into the realm of over-explanation, but I am still curious to know just a little bit more about how the Nazis created the monsters.

The entire cast delivers absolutely fantastic performances throughout the film. Jovan Adepo (Fences, mother!) shines as Boyce, the reluctant soldier with a heart of gold. Adepo conveys Boyce’s internal struggle of doing what he has to as a soldier vs. what he believes is the right thing to do in a very compelling way. Wyatt Russell (22 Jump Street, Table 19) gives audiences a surprising performance as Ford, the man in charge of the mission. Most people are used to Russell in more comedic roles, but his performance in this film proves he can handle the grittier roles as well. The dynamic between these two characters is also wonderful to watch. There is tension, as they have different goals, but there is also a mutual sense of respect that can’t be ignored. I could write an entire review just about the acting, but to save time I will give honorable mention to the rest of the stunning cast including Mathilde Ollivier (The Misfortunes of François Jane), Pilou Asbæk (Game of Thrones), John Magaro (My Soul to Take), Iain De Caestecker (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and Jacob Anderson (Game of Thrones).

For an action packed war horror film, Overlord is surprisingly beautiful to watch. The first act has particularly beautiful cinematography. From the time the film begins all the way until the end credits, audiences get a feast for the eyes. On top of the amazing cinematography, the film also boasts some stunning special effects. With a film like this where the Nazis’ creations are a focal point, the effects have to be well done. The effects team seamlessly blends practical and CGI effects to the point where it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. The results are some grotesque and spectacular monsters that bring terror to the silver screen.

Overlord packs monstrous frights into a claustrophobic WWII setting to deliver a thrill ride audiences won’t soon forget. This is the kind of film that easily could have been a dramatic war film, and the creature element only added to the excitement and the stunning visuals throughout the film. The amazing performances from the entire cast, especially from Adepo and Russell, drive the emotional core to balance out the horrific events. I only wish the filmmakers had given a bit more information into how the creatures are created by the Nazis in the film, but it’s not enough to take away from the rest of the compelling plot. Between these performances, the special effects, and the cinematography, it’s impossible not to enjoy this film. It’s a film I highly recommend horror fans take the time to see on the big screen.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

 

Hell House LLC II: The Abaddon Hotel

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Eight years after the Hell House LLC tragedy, and the subsequent disappearance of a documentary film crew, the mystery of the Abaddon Hotel remains unsolved. An anonymous tip sent to a journalist claims all the evidence of what happened is hidden inside the hotel. The journalist and her crew, along with the only surviving member of the original documentary crew, decide to go back to the hotel to find the truth. They will have to sneak past police and break in, but the real battle will be getting out.

The highly anticipated sequel to Hell House LLC hit Shudder just in time for the Halloween season. Stephen Cognetti returns as writer and director of this found footage haunted house flick. The sequel is filmed similarly to the first film. There are documentary filmmaker shots, videos from phones and handheld devices, news reports, and interviews. This allows the filmmakers to include multiple different perspectives outside the main cast of characters. The scares are also done in a very similar way. They are subtle, and generally lack jump scares. This makes the film itself terrifying, but the fright factor has a lasting effect even after the film is over. Fans will recognize a couple of the more iconic frightening faces, including the absolutely creepy clown mannequin and the haunting ghost woman.

Unfortunately, there are certain aspects of the plot that make Hell House LLC II less successful than its predecessor. One of my only critical notes in the first one was a few unanswered questions. In a haunting film it is fine to have those, but there were some parts left a little too ambiguous. This film goes in the polar opposite direction. Not only does the plot try to tie up every loose end in this film, but it even goes on to answer the questions I had from the first film. The filmmakers end up putting everything into a neat package that is almost too clean. The film goes into so much explanation that it slows the climax to a crawl, taking any suspense out of the moment. The suspense leading up to that moment makes up for the sudden halt, but the climax still comes across as lackluster.

The performances are a bit of a mixed bag. Vasile Flutur (Far From Here) gives the strongest performance as Mitchell. He is intense, skeptical, but he also strives to find the truth behind the disappearance of his friends. A less enjoyable performance came from Jillian Geurts (The Algebra of Need) as the journalist, Jessica. This is partly due to writing and partly the performance itself. In terms of the writing, Jessica is just a generally unlikeable character because of her unwavering need to get the scoop on the history of the hotel. Geurts’ performance comes across as a bit over-rehearsed and her delivery is sometimes a bit exaggerated. It almost feels like a performance for the stage, which doesn’t fit well with the tone of this film. Kyle Ingleman (Attack of the Slime People) delivers a similar performance to Geurts, but it works better for his role as the psychic, Brock Davies.

One common theme amongst all the characters, perhaps with the exception of Brock Davies, is that the motives behind their actions don’t quite come across. In a found footage film it is so important to convey why these people would put themselves in these situations and film the entire time. The first film did this successfully, but it doesn’t hold up as well in the sequel. Davies can be written off because he is a TV psychic, so communicating with the spirits in the Abaddon Hotel and getting it on film would be huge for his career. As for the others, some of their motivations for going to the hotel make sense, but their reasons for staying and continuing to film are a bit hazy at best.

With the use of simplistic scares the filmmakers wisely went with simple effects as well. As I mentioned before, the eerie clown mannequin makes an appearance in this film. Not only is this the most frightening and simple look, but it is also the source of some of the most spine-chilling scares. There are other makeup looks done for some of the ghosts seen in the hotel that are the same as in the previous film, but they are more visible in Hell House LLC II. This may not have been a wise decision, as I am a firm believer in less is more when showing ghosts/creatures in horror films. The brighter lighting makes it more obvious that these characters look as if they are from a Halloween haunt, but that also lends itself well to idea the of this location being the ultimate haunted house.

Hell House LLC II: The Abaddon Hotel has many hits and misses. What works well is the subtle scares, which start earlier in the film than fans saw in its predecessor. It is also great to get some of the answers I was looking for in the first film. What doesn’t work as well is the film’s overall lack of direction. It doesn’t flow quite as well, likely because a lot of effort was put in making everything clear and obvious to the audience. It results in a subdued climax that should have packed more of a punch. Fans who enjoyed the first film will likely be disappointed, but this sequel is still likely to give you chills and make you avoid any abandoned hotels for a while.

OVERALL RATING: 5.5/10

 

The Toybox

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An aging father buys an old RV to take his estranged family on a road trip. Along the way the family picks up a pair of siblings stranded on the side of the road. The road trip has barely begun before things take a turn for the worst. The group ends up broken down in the middle of nowhere, but they are not alone. There is something haunting the rusty old RV, and it’s out for blood.

The Toybox is an interesting blend of horror subgenres. The film is directed by Brian Nagel (ClownTown) and written by Jeff Denton, both also starring in the film. This is Denton’s debut as a screenwriter, and it is a strong start to his writing career. There are a couple scenes where the dialogue doesn’t quite feel true to life, but otherwise the dialogue and plot flow very well. Together Nagel and Denton create a film that is emotionally driven by the family members coming together during the terrifying events, while also giving audiences a frightening film.

For the most part the film is a spooky ghost film. There is an entity haunting the RV, and all it wants to do is maim and kill anyone who enters it. What makes the film a blend of horror subgenres is who is haunting the RV. The film does a great job of leaving little clues throughout the plot as to who the ghost could be, or at least the type of person they were when they were alive. As a film about ghosts, there are some very scary moments in the film as well. There is at least one decent jump scare that got me, but what the film does even better are some of the more subtly tense moments. The filmmakers set up many frightening moments where you can easily see what is going to happen, but they make you wait and wait and wait, building the suspense so you are at the edge of your seat before the trap is sprung. It is a very effective method, and it makes for some of the more memorable moments in the film.

The cast of The Toybox is a talented mix of actors, some of which horror fans will easily recognize. Likely the most widely recognizable actor in the film is Denise Richards (Wild Things, Starship Troopers) as wife and mother, Jennifer. Richards portrays Jennifer as the peacekeeper in the family, whether it be between her husband and his brother, the brother and his father, or keeping her daughter calm. The film also boasts Mischa Barton (The Sixth Sense, The O.C.) as Samantha. In the past few years Barton has been a prominent figure in indie horror films, and she does a great job in this role. She portrays Samantha as a strong, independent character who is also intuitive. Samantha is the first character to notice something isn’t quite right with the decrepit RV. The remaining cast also delivers strong performances including writer Jeff Denton (Inoperable) as Steve, director Brian Nagel (Ouija House) as Jay, Greg Violand (ClownTown) as Charles, Matt Mercer (Beyond the Gates) as Mark, and young Malika Michelle in her first film role as Olivia.

While overall the plot and performances are high points of the film, there are certain aspects that are not quite as strong. One of the lingering questions I was left with after watching this film is who did Charles buy the RV from. There are ways that it could have been done supernaturally or through the internet. Unfortunately, it is mentioned that a man sold the RV to Charles in person, but that person is never referenced again (so it is left unknown if he was somehow in cahoots with the ghostly entity). The other aspect that doesn’t quite fit with the continuity of the film is the appearance of a ghost girl. Based on the nature of the haunting, without giving away too many details, the ghostly young woman simply doesn’t make sense. She is also featured in a scene that is one of the more frightening moments. The issue with this scene is that the haunting is supposed to be limited to inside the RV, yet the ghost girl is scene in the desert landscape.

The Toybox is a tense indie horror film that combines ghostly thrills with a claustrophobic setting. There are a couple aspects of the plot that may leave the audience with lingering questions, but it is still a strong first feature film from screenwriter Denton. He and Nagel clearly make a great filmmaking team. The highlight of the film is how the filmmakers build anticipation and terror. Add compelling performances, especially from the two strong female leads, and it is hard to deny the strengths of the film. This indie horror film is one road trip horror fans won’t want to miss.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

The Nun

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A young nun kills herself in a remote Romanian castle. The Vatican sends a troubled priest and a young nun who has yet to take her final vows to investigate. Their search leads them down a dark path. The pair realize an ancient evil is trying to escape and it is up to them to stop it.

This latest installment in The Conjuring universe is written by Gary Dauberman (Annabelle: Creation) and directed by Corin Hardy (The Hallow).  The film has a very dark and ominous tone. It creates a great gothic atmosphere that lends itself to the ancient Romanian castle. The plot is, for the most part, very simple. The ancient castle holds an evil that the nuns have been able to hold off over the years, but now it threatens to escape. That entity is the character Conjuring fans will remember as Valak. The film has some pretty frightening moments and Valak is not someone you would want to run into in an ancient Romanian castle.

Sadly, there are many flaws in this film as well. One that many fans will likely notice is how little Valak is actually in the film. There are many faceless nuns haunting the halls, but it isn’t really until the climax of the film that Valak becomes a prominent figure. The film also seems to lack any true direction. Other than trying to find out why the nun killed herself and stopping the evil entity, there are only a couple half-realized plot points. The story touches on the priest’s tragic past performing an exorcism, but then only uses that as a mechanism to include more scares in the film. The young nun accompanying him had visions when she was young, yet those visions don’t have much relevancy to the plot. What’s even more disappointing is how the filmmakers connected The Nun to The Conjuring films. Without giving anything away, there was a simple and more obvious way to connect the characters and the films. Yet, for some reason the filmmakers went for a route that was more forced and felt out of place with the rest of the film. There are also aspects of the climax that seem to be derivative of Demon Knight. Again, since I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, I won’t get into specifics, but those who have seen Demon Knight will see what I mean.

While the characters may not be fully fleshed out, the performances are still quite good. Taissa Farmiga (The Final Girls, Anna) stars as Sister Irene. Sister Irene is a different kind of nun than audiences are used to seeing. She asks questions, yet she is very devout in her faith. Her visions seem to be an important part of who she is as a person and why she chose to become a nun, yet they are really only mentioned in passing. Luckily, Farmiga acts beyond what she was given in the script to still allow audiences to connect to the character. Demián Bichir (The Hateful Eight, Savages) also gives a compelling performance as Father Burke. Similar to Sister Irene’s story, Father Burke discusses how he lost an innocent during an exorcism. This seems like it is a large part of his character, yet this part of his past ends up just being used as a way to scare audiences. Bichir does what he can, making me wish I could know more about his character. Then there is Jonas Bloquet (Elle, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) as Frenchie. He is clearly meant to be comedic relief throughout the film, and Bloquet definitely is funny, yet the humor does not fit with the overall tone of the film. Frenchie is an entertaining character, but he feels pigeonholed into the film. A great cast is clearly underutilized, yet they did as much as they could with the material they were given.

The highlight of The Nun is the visuals. The set design is by far the most impressive aspect. The castle and surrounding grounds are both beautiful and haunting, making the film sinister from start to finish. Even though the film takes place in the 1950’s, it has a very medieval feel which lends to the ancient demonic presence the priest and nun are fighting. The evil itself has a very iconic look as well. Valak has a very striking look that is terrifying without needing to really try. While fans will recognize Valak and that demon’s look, the film uses other nuns as well to add to the fear. These nuns are faceless. They are creepy and their style allows for Valak to stand out as the primary focus. There is a good mix of jump scares and more subtle, spine-tingling moments that balance out nicely throughout the film.

Despite its early buzz, The Nun is likely to be quickly forgotten. The film boasts strong performances and some of the most striking visuals of any film in The Conjuring universe. What it lacks is fully developed characters and a complete story that connects well to the other films in the franchise. The Nun has enough frightening moments to make it a fun popcorn flick, but it lacks some of the substance fans will be used to from the rest of the franchise.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10

Diane

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A wounded military veteran lives a solitary life. He goes through the same routine day in and day out, until something unexpected breaks that routine. He awakes one morning to find the body of a beautiful singer in his back yard. Before calling the police, he takes a picture of her. As the police investigation tries to prove his guilt, the image of the dead woman haunts the man, threatening to shatter his sanity.

Michael Mongillo (The Wind) takes the helm as writer and director of this haunting film. The film is a slow burn. It begins with a small amount of character development before the discovery of the body. From there the film focuses on many different factors affecting the protagonist as his obsession with the dead woman grows. Around him there is the police investigation, people in the neighborhood who think he must be guilty, and maybe even the ghost of the woman he found. All of these things unravel the man’s mind. At times he even talks to himself or has wild dreams and hallucinations, all revolving around the woman. The tension slowly builds until the truth is revealed, which almost comes as a release of that tension in a more therapeutic way than is typically found in horror films.

The opening of the film is a bit odd. It starts with a somewhat awkward, drawn out song sung by the woman who will eventually be found dead. This is followed by a sort of “day in the life” sequence showing how the main character typically spends his days. The discovery of the body comes after the screen flashes “one month later.” In all honesty, the song and the “one month later” come across as quite unnecessary. It isn’t until the climax of the film that these cinematic choices by the filmmakers fall into place. The “one month later” becomes more significant, as does the song. I still believe the song borders on uncomfortable to watch, especially with how long it goes on, and the film would have benefited by simply starting with the day in the life of the main character.

Slow-burn horror films only work if the performances can carry the intensity and intrigue throughout the plot. There isn’t a large cast, so most of that responsibility is on the shoulders of the protagonist. The star of the film is Jason Alan Smith (Before I Wake) as Steve. Smith portrays Steve as a silent, brooding wounded military veteran who primarily keeps to himself. This character portrayal works well in the film. The military background specifically works well because it makes it more believable that a man would become so invested in what happened to the woman he found. The mental effects of combat would also explain his issues with memory loss and seeing things, even though the things he sees could also be supernatural.

There are many different color schemes used throughout the film that add some visual interest. The color schemes are used to differentiate between the present, memories, dreams, and hallucinations. The present has a rather bleak color palette, favorite washed out colors and greys.  It lends to the rather bleak existence Steve lives. The past is more vibrant and has more lifelike colors. In the dream sequences the primary color used is red, making it simple to determine when Steve is dreaming. When the hallucinations, or ghostly apparitions, appear they have a staticky appearance as if watching through an ancient television. Generally speaking this technique works well for the purpose of storytelling throughout the film. I personally have never liked the grey-scale, washed-out color scheme commonly found in small budget horror films, but it clearly has a purpose in this film.

Diane gives viewers a haunting mystery that blends psychological thriller with the supernatural. The plot presents an interesting puzzle to be solved and that puzzle is solved rather nicely by the end of the film. The color palette makes sense for the plot, despite my personal dislike for the grey-scale which is most commonly used. If the colors had been a bit more true to life, and the opening scene was cut, the film would have been more appealing. Yet this film still has a compelling story with a strong performance from Smith.

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10

Tap (Short)

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A woman awakes in the night to a tapping sound. Upon investigation she discovers something more sinister than she could possibly imagine.

This short film is written and directed by Dave Bundtzen (The Maestro, The Record Keeper). It is a fairly simple premise. A phantom tapping wakes a woman up in the middle of the night. From there the filmmakers create tension by having the tapping sound grow and grow. There are also some good jump scares thrown in for good measure. The tapping itself is also quite effective. The taps always come in threes, creating a clear pattern as the taps grow more and more violent. Considering the fact that this short is just shy of 3 minutes long and has one line of dialogue, it still tells a complete story. The viewer may not have all the details on why these events are happening, but that is something that tends to work well in a short film. It is intriguing and gives the film a sense of mystery, but no so much that the plot is disappointing.

The small production has two cast members. The only one I can really critique for acting is Katherine Celio (The Yellow Wallpaper, Malaise) as Amanda. Celio gives a great performance. There is a balance of both fear and strength in her portrayal of Amanda that works well. She is clearly scared by the tapping and the events that follow, but she also has a strength that keeps her from being your average victim.

In a short film there typically isn’t a large budget for effects. This short has some minimal effects, but some aspects are more successful than others. There is an interesting effect done in a mirror that appears to be a combination of CGI and practical effects. While at first it is very effective and eye-catching, it progresses into something that does’t quite insight the fear it is meant to. It is a situation where “less is more” would likely have been a more appropriate approach. The makeup design for the evil entity in the film is striking in its color pallet, but it also seems bit too minimalistic. It is as if some of the effort put into the mirror effects should have instead gone towards creating a more iconic makeup design. Either way, it still manages to create memorable imagery that lends to the plot.

Tap is a simplistic yet effective short film. It utilizes a basic sound pattern to build suspense leading up to the startling end. While the effects and makeup design leave a little bit to be desired, the overall look is still memorable and works will with the short. Add a great performance from Celio, and the result is a compelling short film. It gives viewers just enough to satisfy their horror needs, but rightfully leaves them wishing they could know more.

OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5