Scifi

The Invisible Man

MV5BZjFhM2I4ZDYtZWMwNC00NTYzLWE3MDgtNjgxYmM3ZWMxYmVmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTkxNjUyNQ@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,631,1000_AL_

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

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

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

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

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

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

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

Transference

MV5BOTIxMTNmOWYtM2IyYi00OGFmLWIwYWEtNjg1M2MxMDM1MDczXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyOTMzOTMzMTg@._V1_SY1000_SX675_AL_

Orphaned twins Joshua and Emma are in hiding. Emma has strong supernatural abilities, but she isn’t able to control them. Joshua does his best to protect his sister and keep her hidden from the outside world. Yet they will both soon learn some things can never be contained.

Transference is the latest pseudo-superhero film trying to bring something different to the subgenre. Director Matthew Ninaber (Extraction Day, Last Run) co-wrote the film along with Jennifer Lloyd (Extraction Day) and Aaron Tomlin, the latter making his feature film debut as a writer. The film starts at a very intense, stressful point for the twins. From there, we see Emma being held in captivity by Joshua as he tries to find a way to make her better. The film deals with a lot of different themes and some new ideas. Some areas the film glosses over are the death of their father, being adopted by a priest, others with abilities, those who wish to control Emma, and the connection between twins and how it relates to Emma’s abilities. Unfortunately, many of these themes are never fully realized. There is a lot of information that is lightly touched on, but by the time the film ends it doesn’t seem as though any of the mysteries set up are ever resolved. I can understand wanting to maintain an air of mystery, but these go to an extreme and the film doesn’t appear complete.

While the writing of Transference leaves a bit to be desired, the actors do their best with the material to deliver compelling performances. Jeremy Ninaber (Extraction Day, Forest Fairies) stars as Joshua. While I don’t feel like audiences really get to know Joshua, aside from his love for his sister and anger issues, Ninaber does his best to try to convey the inner feelings and turmoil of this character. Melissa Joy Boerger makes her debut in this film as twin sister Emma. Much like Joshua, we don’t get a lot of information about who this character is beyond her abilities. We know she is powerful and we know she has issues with drugs and depression, but there isn’t any clear reasoning behind her actions. Boerger does a good job of playing the different sides of Emma, but without knowing why she does the things she does the character ends up coming across as disjointed. Aaron Tomlin (Extraction Day, Last Run) plays Malcolm, a man who Joshua brings to try and help his sister. Tomlin’s performance is interesting because his intentions are never really clear, giving him a somewhat sinister aura that comes through the screen. It would be interesting to see the actors in these roles if the characters were better developed, but they do a fine job with what they are given.

Since this, at its core, is a superhero film, it is important to have some great fight scenes and effects to show the supernatural abilities. Emma is able to do different things, but one major ability is that she can move things with her mind. The filmmakers chose to have this visually manifest as what looks like sound waves moving through the air. This is a wise decision because it is a simple CGI effect that makes a striking visual impact. Joshua, on the other hand, likes to use his fists. There are some nicely choreographed fight scenes that are entertaining to watch and at times are almost dance-like. These artistic elements help hold the viewers’ interest.

Transference throws a lot of interesting ideas at the audience, but these ideas never stick or have a coherent resolution. This makes the film just okay; there isn’t necessarily anything I dislike about it, but there also isn’t anything to truly keep me engaged. This may be an issue of too many cooks in the kitchen when it comes to writing the script, however, this film shows potential. It has nice visuals and the performances are strong in light of the material the actors are given. Transference might not be a hit, but it’s intriguing enough to make me interested in what these filmmakers will do next.

OVERALL RATING: 5/10

Jessica Forever

MV5BOTgzZGFhMmItNDM2Mi00YzE5LWEyMWYtMjcyM2Q4MmU2YWUxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODIyOTEyMzY@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,734,1000_AL_

In an alternate version of our reality, young orphaned boys lead violent lives on their own and are hunted by the government. A woman named Jessica takes these young men in and calms their inner beast. This unique family only wants to live in peace, away from the outside world, but the outside world threatens to destroy what they have built.

Jessica Forever is a very unique French film and the feature-film directorial debut of Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel. The duo collaborated with Mariette Désert (Suzanne, Particles) on the screenplay. The film takes place in a world where orphaned young men commit horrific crimes and are unable to contain the rage within. That is until Jessica finds them. She is a mysterious woman who seems to have some supernatural ability to not only find these young men, but also calm their inner anger. Like Wendy cares for the Lost Boys of Neverland, Jessica takes care of these young men and nurtures them to make them peaceful. She is their mother, their sister, their angel, and never shown in a sexual light. By giving them the thing no one else will, these young men become dedicated to her and the family they have created. Yet society wants these orphans dead because of their crimes and constantly sends armed drones to destroy them.

These filmmakers not only created a unique story, but they also created a film that elicits strong emotions and deals with many issues related to masculinity. Emotions run deep within all these young men and those emotions can easily be felt through the screen. Even when there is complete silence, it is impossible to not feel what they are feeling deep in your soul. Jessica Forever offers an interesting commentary on what it means to be a young man. When they are alone, each of the young men is violent and has no control over their emotions. When they have the maternal nurturing of Jessica and the familial support of others, they are able to be calm and supportive of one another. The film also displays how young men often try to hide their sadness and true feelings from the world. In one particularly beautiful scene, the family is grieving, but none of them shed a tear. Instead they come together with melancholy music and dancing. While the entire group, even Jessica, holds back their emotions, it is still impossible not to feel their pain.

The entire family delivers deep, compelling performances that will strike a cord with viewers. Aomi Muyock (Love, Scenario) stars as Jessica. While Muyock has very little dialogue throughout the film, her performance stands out. She exudes a strong, etherial, maternal, and even otherworldly presence. While it’s difficult to just select one performance from the family of young men, the one that stands out to me is Augustin Raguenet (War of the Worlds, Parties: Homelands) as Lucas. We get the most background on Lucas and watch as he works through some of his past trauma and mistakes. Raguenet truly embodies this complex character as he overcomes his past for the sake of his new family. The entire cast is really phenomenal and audiences are sure to feel the devotion Jessica and the young men have for each other.

Much of the film relies on cinematography, unique visuals, and monologues to move the plot forward. This method may be off-putting to some viewers, but it does effectively bring out inner feelings. The cinematography is especially interesting because it consists of many images in which the entire family is together with Jessica almost always at the center. It shows how she has a gravitational pull that brings the family together. There is also a lot of gorgeous juxtaposition throughout the film. Much of it shows the dangerous appearance of the young men compared to the tenderness they feel for Jessica and each other. There is also a very interesting scene where some of the young men go shopping for supplies. After seeing the hostile world these men live in compared to the seemingly average, everyday world everyone else lives in allows the audience to sympathize more with the family. Jessica Forever also utilizes CGI to generate fascinating imagery relating to Lucas’ personal journey. This imagery seems a bit out of place in the film as a whole, but works to show how Lucas has to work through his past in order to become closer to his new family.

Jessica Forever is a stunning film that uses a dystopian setting to show how the love and support of family, even an adopted family, can tame the savagery within. Poggi, Vinel, and Désert made an arthouse drama in the body and a sci-fi adventure. It isn’t a film that is going to have mass appeal, but those who can connect to the emotions of the film are sure to enjoy it. Jessica Forever also boasts strong performances and a fascinating universe I hope the filmmakers get the opportunity to expand on. Genre film lovers won’t want to miss this film.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

The Fare

MV5BYWZjOWE1NTctNjk4MS00NDRlLTkxNmYtNGVlYzM1OTE3ZmJiXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDQzMjI2OTU@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,673,1000_AL_

A taxi driver finds himself on a remote road at night to pick up a fare. A mysterious woman ends up in his cab, but before they reach their destination she vanishes. Unbeknownst to the taxi driver, he will meet the woman again as soon as he switches the meter back to vacant.

D.C. Hamilton (The Midnight Man) brings audiences his sophomore film as the director of The Fare. Written by Brinna Kelly (The Midnight Man), who also stars in the film, The Fare tells the story of a taxi driver named Harris. When he is sent out to the remote location at night to pick up a fare, he half expects it to be a prank call. That is until he finds a beautiful and mysterious woman named Penny there waiting for him. They have normal polite conversation until they approach an oncoming storm, then the woman suddenly vanishes. Harris, confused, resets his meter back to vacant and ends up right back where he started. The only problem is, he doesn’t seem to know he’s been reset. The audience watches as Harris and Penny go through the same time loop, that is until Harris finally starts to remember.

The entire premise of The Fare is far more interesting and unique than I expected. In the past few years there have been a number of time-loop films. Each one has its own distinctive flare and reasons for the time loop. This film manages to stand out from the crowd by delivering a compelling story and an unexpected reason for Harris and Penny being stuck in that loop. The filmmakers do a fantastic job of keeping the audience guessing. At times the film hints at aliens, gods, and other potential reasons. The truth is revealed in layers, only divulging small pieces of the puzzle at a time and ultimately making the big reveal incredibly satisfying. More importantly, it makes sense! Often times the plots of time-loop films can get convoluted, but The Fare delivers something audiences will understand and enjoy.

When you strip The Fare down to its core, it is much more of a love story than it is a time-loop film. Once Harris becomes aware of his situation and remembers more, we see his relationship with Penny grow. It’s especially interesting to watch because they are at such different stages of coming to terms with their situation. Penny’s memory goes much further back, so she’s already gone through the various stages of grief such as anger and bargaining, but she’s now accepted her situation. Since Harris is starting from the beginning, he has a harder time coming to terms with his situation. Yet it all brings them closer together, which only strengthens Harris’s quest to escape the loop with Penny and find the truth.

Both leads in The Fare deliver great performances. Gino Anthony Pesi (Shades of Blue, Battle Los Angeles) stars as Harris the taxi driver. While more handsome than people might expect of a stereotypical taxi driver, Pesi still fits the role well. There is a roughness to him, but he is still a very personable individual. What I especially enjoy about Pesi and his portrayal of Harris is his gradual change. Throughout his character arc, the audience sees Harris go through a wide range of emotions. When Harris and Penny become closer, Pesi even conveys a soft and caring side that is unexpected. Writer Brinna Kelly stars as Penny. Kelly brings a certain amount of poise and elegance to Penny that is very fitting for the character. Yet it’s when her barriers are broken down and her affection for Harris grows that Kelly really creates memorable moments for Penny. Pesi and Kelly have great on-screen chemistry throughout the film and will hold the attention of audiences.

Overall, the look and feel of the film reminds me a lot of an episode of The Twilight Zone and old noir films. At first, The Fare is in black and white. As Harris’s memory comes back, more and more of the film is in color. It creates a great visual cue for the audience to designate when Harris knows he is in the loop or not. The filmmakers also wisely chose to have the film set almost entirely within the taxi. Not only does this create a very intimate setting for the two leads, but it also allows for a lot of possibilities when it comes to the “why” behind the time loop. This decision likely gave the filmmakers the opportunity to spend the budget in more valuable areas instead of building elaborate sets or paying to use various locations.

The Fare is an unexpected gem that delivers something new to the time-loop subgenre of film. Hamilton and Kelly prove to be an effective filmmaking duo as they take audiences on a journey that goes to strange new places. Kelly also shows her acting prowess along with Pesi. Both actors deliver stunning performances and create dynamic characters. My only truly negative criticism of The Fare is at times the small budget is quite apparent. Yet the plot is novel enough and creates a mythos that is sure to bewitch audiences.

OVERLL RATING: 8.5/10

In the Tall Grass

MV5BN2M0NTJmMDAtNWI0ZC00MjdlLTlmYWEtMjNiMmJmOGRiNTEwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUxMTY3ODM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,675,1000_AL_

A brother and sister on a cross-country drive pull over in a remote part of middle America. While stopped, they hear a young boy calling for help in a field of very tall grass. The siblings decide they have to go into the field to help the boy. It doesn’t take long for the two to become separated and soon they realize there is something sinister about the grass.

Based on the novella by Stephen King and Joe Hill, writer and director Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Splice) brings In the Tall Grass from the page to the screen. This sci-fi horror mash-up begins with the brother and sister. They are lured into the field of grass, which appears to be at least 8 feet tall, and quickly find themselves separated and lost in the abyss of green. There also seems to be a family separated and lost in the grass, but their intentions aren’t very clear. It isn’t until the sister’s ex-boyfriend comes looking for her that the mystery slowly begins to unravel. The film plays with some ideas that will feel familiar to fans of this particular type of horror, while also managing to create something thrilling and unique. The plot takes the very simple idea of being lost in a virtual sea of grass that rises high above the average person’s head and expertly turns it into something much more complex.

The tension of In the Tall Grass can be felt almost immediately. Each part of the plot builds this tension from the young boy calling the siblings into the grass, to the siblings immediately getting separated, to the simple fact that the sister is pregnant, and to the various people in the grass not being trustworthy. Even the grass itself adds to the suspense. It is so tall and it seems to go on forever, generating an extremely claustrophobic feel as the audience sees from the point of view of those trapped in the grass. From there the suspense and the plot become much more complex. Whatever entity or energy exists within the grass, it has the ability to play with all the laws of physics humans have come to know. Time and space mean nothing in the tall grass. Being in the grass creates a sort of time loop, which is a popular concept in many recent horror films, yet In the Tall Grass still manages to make it feel unique. There is also a great element of the unknown. The film hints at the ancient power within the field and other specific elements, but nothing is overtly explained. There is just enough shown to create a mythos, but a majority of why these horrible things are happening is left a mystery. There is one aspect of the mythos in the climax that is rather horrifying. It is the one aspect that is not explained that really should have been as it leaves a gaping whole where the answer should be.

The cast of the film is primarily made up of lesser-known actors, with the exception of one name horror fans are sure to recognize. Laysla De Oliveira (Guest of Honour, Locke & Key) stars as the pregnant Becky. Oliveira does a fantastic job of conveying Becky’s vulnerability in her pregnant state, yet that pregnancy is also what makes her more determined to survive and escape the grass. Equally determined is her ex-boyfriend, Travis, played by Harrison Gilbertson (Need for Speed, Upgrade). Travis’s determination comes from wanting to save his unborn baby and the woman he loves. Gilbertson also delivers a compelling performance in this role. The surprise performance of the film comes from the most famous of the actors, Patrick Wilson (Insidious, The Conjuring). Wilson plays Ross, a man already trapped in the grass. He manages to portray a character that is far more sinister than anything we have seen from him before. Additional strong performances come from Avery Whitted (The Vanishing of Sidney Hall) and Will Buie Jr. (Bunk’d).

Most of the horror and suspense in the film rests entirely on the setting. Many horror films take place in fields of corn, but the field of grass that goes far above your head in this film is far more menacing. The grass doesn’t grow in a uniform way like corn does, which makes it much easier to get lost in the endless green. The grass is also very tightly packed, making it difficult to know where you are or if there is anything lurking just beyond those blades. It’s quite effective and beautiful. The filmmakers include gorgeous aerial shots of the grass that truly make the field appear as if it goes on forever. At the center of the field lies something large and ominous that lends to the mythos created throughout the film. It is a simple setting that has a striking look. The only other visual aspects are a few practical effects. These are also well done. They come in the form of minor wounds, a few corpses, and some very intriguing masks worn by beings in the grass.

In the Tall Grass is a twisting, cyclical journey of mysticism and madness from the minds of Stephen King and Joe Hill. Natali does a superb job of bringing the story to life. The resulting film is mysterious, thrilling, and gives the viewer something unique. The filmmakers were smart in making much of the mechanics behind the field of grass a mystery, yet there is one aspect of the climax that needs a bit of explanation. As is, it comes across as simply being in the film for shock value. While this plot stands apart from similar films, it may fall to the wayside with the many successful time-loop films that have been released in the past few years. Luckily the film has strong performances and an eerie setting to really build the suspense. This is a Netflix original film fans of Stephen King, Joe Hill, horror, and time-loop films will definitely want to see.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

 

 

Freaks

freaks

Chloe lives alone with her father. He has many rules. The windows must always be covered, the doors have to stay locked, and Chloe can never go outside or bad people will kill her. Yet, being a child, Chloe wants to go outside and be a normal kid. Her contact with those outside her home will reveal the truth about the outside world.

Freaks is a film that takes a unique approach to an age-old concept. The film is co-written and directed by Zach Lipovsky (Leprechaun: Origins, Ingress Obsessed) and Adam B. Stein (Ingress Obsessed, Nerd Court). Together this duo creates a film that continually manages to subvert expectations. It begins by introducing the audience to a young girl, Chloe, and her dad. They live alone in a dilapidated house with all the windows covered by boards and newspaper. Chloe’s dad is very strict and has elaborate rules that must be followed in order for them to stay alive. After years of living this way, a chance encounter begins to unravel Chloe’s world.

This film effectively keeps the audience guessing by showing everything from Chloe’s perspective. She is a child so everything she knows about the world is what her dad told her. The strange happenings are rationalized in her child mind and the audience is kept guessing as to what the truth behind it all is. We don’t initially know if Chloe’s dad is telling the truth or if he is paranoid. We hear mention of “freaks” and a “mountain,” but the significance and weight of those words mean nothing to Chloe. It’s an effective means of storytelling that allows the filmmakers to reveal things at the pace of a snowball rolling down a mountain; just a small bit at first, but then the revelations get bigger and come barreling down even faster.

At times, Freaks comes across as a more grounded version of an X-Men film. It is much more focused on the familial relationships between father and daughter, but the strange revelations happening around Chloe are still very important to the plot. Because that father-daughter relationship is so vital, it makes certain scenes in which the two do not quite get along a bit jarring. It is normal for a young girl who is just discovering the outside world to act out and rebel a bit. Yet Chloe takes things to a whole new level that seems too extreme. One minute she is a sweet child, the next she seems to be capable of murder. The best way to rationalize this behavior is Chloe’s isolated upbringing and the lack of human interaction to truly understand the difference between right and wrong.

Across the board, Freaks has fantastic performances. The true star of the film is young Lexy Kolker (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Shooter) as Chloe. Kolker carries the film and pushes the plot forward. At first Kolker portrays Chloe as a sweet young girl who loves her father and follows his rules. As curiosity gets the better of her, an inner ferocity comes out of Chloe. Kolker particularly shines when she is able to bring that ferocity to the surface. Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) plays Chloe’s dad. At first the dad is hard to read. He seems as if he’s paranoid, possibly a drunk, and a generally disheveled man. He clearly loves Chloe, but his sanity isn’t as clear. Hirsch does an amazing job of conveying that paranoia and hysteria, then as the truth is revealed he helps the audience to see the dad in a different light. Hirsch and Kolker play off of each other very well. You can feel the struggle between them, yet you can also very clearly feel the love between father and daughter.

The filmmakers behind Freaks made some very interesting and striking visual choices. This is most evident in the difference between inside and outside Chloe’s home. The shots from inside the house are very dark and dingy. Everything takes on an old, yellowish hue. It makes the home appear even more depressing and unfit for a little girl to live in. The outside world is the exact opposite. That world is bright and every color is so vidid, almost beyond reality. There are also stunning special effects used in the climax of the film. Between the truth about Chloe’s dad and the outside world, there is ample opportunity for the filmmakers to create interesting visual representations with these effects.

Freaks takes a familiar and arguably fatigued sci-fi subgenre and gives in new life. Lipovksy and Stein deliver a compelling story about the relationship between father and daughter. They also put ample focus on the power behind fear of the “other.” The film is brought to life by powerhouse performances from Kolker and Hirsch, as well as stunning visual storytelling. While I have a feeling this film may fly under the radar upon initial release, it has enough mass appeal to garner a cult following as word about the film spreads.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Nightmare Cinema

MV5BNTk2NGE1YjItZWYyNS00YmJiLWJlNjgtYTJlMTQyNTg1MzZjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTI4Mjg4MjA@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,675,1000_AL_

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

Black Site

site

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

Starfish

starfish

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

 

Happy Death Day 2U

death

Tree thought she had broken the loop that forced her to relive the same day (and her death) over and over again. She thought she had defeated her killer. Yet that brief happiness is interrupted when a series of events throw her into another time loop. This time it’s different. She will not only have to keep dying and reliving the same day, but now she will also have to make an impossible decision that could change the rest of her life.

Writer and director Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day, Paranormal Activity 3) is at it again with this sci-fi/horror/slasher/comedy mashup. This sequel picks up almost immediately where the first film left off. Poor Tree didn’t even get a full day to enjoy being out of her time loop. Not only does she get stuck in a time loop again, but she is accidentally thrown into an entirely different timeline. It’s up to Tree and her friends, none of whom remember her, to stop the loop. The more difficult decision is whether she will stay in this timeline or go back to her own.

The first film was more of a straightforward slasher-comedy, while this film incorporates even more genres. The most obvious and most important addition is the sci-fi element. In Happy Death Day the film focused on figuring out who the baby face killer was, but in Happy Death Day 2U the focus is on stopping the loop by more scientific means. While some fans of the first film may be disappointed by this change, I think it is brilliant. In a film franchise where the entire premise has to do with reliving the same day over and over, it is important to keep the story fresh so audiences don’t feel like they are watching the same film for the second time in a row. The shift to the sci-fi aspect allows the filmmakers to focus on a new set of characters and a new set of problems. Without giving too much away, this change allowed the film to have an emotional depth that wasn’t present in the first film. Not only do we get to know Tree and other vital characters on a deeper level, but we also watch as Tree is faced with an impossible decision. It tugs at the heartstrings, while still giving plenty of opportunity for humor in the form of Tree’s many deaths and horror in the form of the baby face killer (albeit less horror and baby face than we saw in the previous film).

As a result of the change in tone with the sequel, the performances in Happy Death Day 2U are also much more emotionally driven. Jessica Rothe (Happy Death Day, Forever My Girl) is absolutely dazzling as Tree. What makes Rothe such a joy to watch is how well she balances humor with the more heartfelt moments. She is really hilarious, especially with her reaction to reliving the same day and her many deaths, but this film allows the audience to see a side of Tree we haven’t seen before. Tree is a character I would love to see more of, and Rothe is perfect in the role. Israel Broussard (Happy Death Day, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before) is also enjoyable to watch as Carter. There is something about Broussard and his portrayal of Carter that is instantly endearing and lovable, and his chemistry with Rothe is fantastic. Honorable mention goes to two actors who bring a lot of comedic relief to the film and their roles: Phi Vu (Happy Death Day, Logan) as Ryan and Rachel Matthews (Happy Death Day) as Danielle.

This PG-13 franchise does a really good job of conveying gore without actually showing anything graphic. With each time Tree dies, the death happens just out of sight or the audience isn’t shown the exact moment of her death, but we see when she wakes up and restarts the day. For example, when Tree dies from electrocution, she wakes up when the day restarts to her hair standing up on end. In another scene Tree plummets to her death. We hear the splat and see others react to the carnage, but it happens just out of frame. This method allows Happy Death Day 2U to have a lot of death to appease older audiences while still keeping a low MPAA rating so more moviegoers can enjoy the film.

Happy Death Day 2U has all the fun of the first film while also incorporating new genres and more depth. Considering this is now one of two films that involves reliving the same day on repeat, the filmmakers manage to keep the plot fresh by adding new danger, new twists, and new drama. There will likely be some moviegoers who will not enjoy the subtle genre changes from the first film, but I for one think these changes are a brilliant way to breathe new life to the story. It makes me interested to see what could be done with a third film, and Rothe’s performance makes me want to see much more of Tree. This entertaining and emotionally driven genre-bending flick is one you can even watch with your non-horror loving friends and family.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

(I saw the first film, but didn’t ever review it. If I did I would have also given it an 8/10)