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She Dies Tomorrow (2020)

She Dies Tomorrow has unwittingly become a movie of the moment, tapping into the encroaching anxiety and paranoia of our COVID-19 times in a way where the horror of newspaper headlines and existential dread has been transformed into a memetic curse. The new indie thriller is an uncanny and unexpected reflection of our uncertain times and it makes She Dies Tomorrow even more resonant, even if writer/director Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color, 2019 Pet Sematary) doesn’t fully seem to articulate her story. We’ve dealt with curses in films before and we’ve dealt with foreboding omens of impending death, but how would you respond if you knew, with certainty, that you were going to die the next day? How would you respond if you knew that your existence was itself a vector for this mysterious contagion and that by telling others you are dooming them to the same deadly fate, as well as their loved ones, and so on? Sure sounds similar to a certain invisible enemy that relies upon communal consideration to be beaten back but maybe that’s just me.

Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) is a recovering alcoholic who knows, with complete certainty, that she will die the next day. Her boyfriend killed himself after saying he was cursed to live one last day, and now she’s convinced the same fate awaits her. Her sister Jane (Jane Adams) is worried about her  mental state and then becomes obsessed with her warning. Jane then believes she too will meet the same fate, and discusses this to her brother (Chris Messina) and his wife (Katie Aselton) and two of their dinner guests. Each comes to believe that this deadly declaration is true. They must decide how to spend their remaining hours and whether the curse spreads beyond them.

It seems like with Color Out of Space and The Beach House, 2020 is the year of movies where characters slowly succumb to forces beyond their understanding and that they cannot overcome. Halfway through She Dies Tomorrow, we have a half dozen characters that have been infected, and we watch how each respond to the recognition of their impending doom. One man wants to take care of personal decisions he’s been postponing. Another decides to come clean about wanting to end their relationship. Another debates whether it’s more humane to allow their child to pass in her sleep rather than rouse her to expire aware and conscious. That’s the kind of stuff that is intensely interesting, allowing the viewer to question what their own decisions and thoughts might be under these unique circumstances. I also liked that Seimetz keeps some degree of ambiguity (though perhaps too much for her own good). The curse is never fully confirmed. Could it simply be people going crazy and giving into a mental delusion that their fate is decided beyond their governance? Could they all be hypochondriacs giving into their worst fears and finding paranoid community? Is there a relief is adopting self-defeating fatalism?

The slow, fatalistic approach of the storytelling and the spread of the curse channels the crushing feelings of depression and helplessness, an emotional state many can identify with right now. There’s a heaviness throughout the movie that feels like an oppressive existential weight. As soon as these characters recognize the truth of the “I’ll die tomorrow” creed, they don’t fight. They don’t run. They don’t even rage against the unfair nature of their imminent demise. There isn’t a cure or even a mechanism for delay. The rules of the curse are fairly vague but it seems to follow the specifics of once you’re been exposed to an infected individual, and they mention their own impending death, that this starts the clock for your end. The characters lament how they’ve spent their lives, what they might like to have done differently, and come to terms with some marginal level of acceptance. Amy wants her body to be turned into a leather coat after she’s gone. Another woman opines how much she’ll miss trees, something that she took for granted. Another character marvels at the beauty of the sunset, which will be his last, drinking in the natural splendor with a new appreciation that he never had before. One woman says she regrets spending so much of her days talking about dumb nonsense, and then her firend disagrees, saying he enjoyed her nonsense and it brought him laughter. Taking stock of a life, there will always be regrets that more wasn’t accomplished or appreciated, and many of these same characters are determining how to spend their last hours, whether they prefer a partner or going it alone. In that sense, She Dies Tomorrow reminds me of the mopey indie version of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World or the more palatable, less operatic version of Melancholia.

At barely 90 minutes, this is also a very slow and meditative movie that will likely trigger frustration in many a viewer. I’ll admit that my mind wandered from time to time with some of the, shall we say, more leisurely paced segments or redundant moments. There is a heavy amount of ennui present throughout here, so watching a woman listen to the same classical record, or laying on the floor in a catatonic daze, or staring off uninterrupted into the middle distance adds up as far as the run time. There isn’t much in the way of story here to fill out those 90 minutes. Amy infects her sister, who infects her brother and his wife, and from there they all deal with their new reality. From a plot standpoint, that’s about all She Dies Tomorrow has to offer. It has flashes of interesting character moments, like the couple who talk about their long-delayed breakup, or the couple discussing the ethics of letting their child die in her sleep, but too often the movie relies on mood over story, letting a numbing futility wash over the characters and conversely the audience. I’m not saying that mood can’t be the priority. It feels like apocalyptic mumblecore but with a screenplay with too much internalization to really take off. It can seem like an overextended short film. I can’t help but feel that Seimetz is just scraping the surface of her story potential and that these characters could have been even more compelling if they were given more than resignation.

Sheil (Equals, House of Cards) gives a suitably withdrawn and shell-shocked performance. She reminded me of a cross between Katherine Waterston and Dakota Johnson. The other actors, including familiar faces like Josh Lucas and Michelle Rodriguez, all adjust their performances to fit the tone and mood of this world, which means much is dialed back. I wish I had more moments like when Aselton (The League) viciously unloads what she really thinks about her aloof sister-in-law. The cast as a whole feel overly anesthetized, a bunch of walking zombies bumbling around the furniture, and while it’s within Seimetz’s intended approach, it does drain some of the appeal from the film.

Given the overwhelming feeling of daily unease we live with during an ongoing pandemic, I can understand if watching a movie like She Dies Tomorrow doesn’t exactly seem desirable. It can prove engaging while also airy, navel-gazing, and adrift. It’s several big ideas spread thin with overextended melancholy and nihilism. In a way it reminds me of 2016’s A Ghost Story, another indie reaching for some big statements about the human condition and grief and our sense of self and legacy. But that movie didn’t quite have enough development to make those ideas hit. Instead, I’ll remember it always as the Rooney Mara Eats a Pie For Five Minutes movie. There’s nothing quite as memorable, good or bad, here with She Dies Tomorrow. It’s mildly affecting and generally interesting, though it can also try your patience and seems to be missing a whole act of development. If you only have one more day to live, I wouldn’t advise using your remaining hours on this movie but you could do worse.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Pet Sematary (2019)

I already know my computer’s spell check is going to hate this review. In the wake of the box-office bonanza of It, prolific author Stephen King is a hot property once again for studios and everything old is new again. Pet Sematary (yes it’s intentionally misspelled) is a remake of a 1989 that was a hit back in the day. It was never regarded as a good movie but had its campy entertainment, so there was some room for improvement. Early reviews were positive and I raised my hopes for the 2019 edition, but after having seen the finished product, maybe some movies too are better off left dead.

Louis (Jason Clarke) and Rachel (Amy Seimetz) have moved to small-town Maine for a little peace and quiet and to spend more time with their children, nine-year-old Ellie (Jete Laurence) and their toddler, Gage. They happen to live next to a busy road with dangerous drivers speeding at all hours. An accident claims the life of their beloved family cat, but the kindly old neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) has a piece of advice. Beyond the “pet sematary” in the woods is a place where the buried dead come back to life. The cat comes back, though is mean and different. Later, another accident takes the life of Ellie, and Louis cannot let her go. He buries her in the hallowed grounds, she comes back, but she’s not daddy’s little girl any longer, and people will pay a high price.

Eschewing a sense of camp, the film risks being overrun by its own sense of seriousness, which only works if there is room given to explore the ramifications of grief, the choices people make when they’re hurting, and the irony of good intentions. If you’re going to go in a serious direction then you need the confidence and dedication to play to that decision, and that’s not the case with the 2019 Pet Sematary. It’s lacking those important moments of contemplation or even dwelling with the horror of bringing back a loved one from the dead. There’s only so much evil hissing cat you can have before you hit a limit and start saying, “What else you got?” There’s going to be an escalation, I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler, considering the nature of the premise but also its predecessor being 30 years old, that one of the children will die only to be brought back. It’s also an easy speculation that they will “come back wrong” but the drama is processing this decision and trying to mitigate the mounting consequences. How far will a parent go to protect their child even if that child is an undead murderer? The trials should strain the moral resolve or our protagonist while reveling in the grotesque.

Because every viewer is going to already expect this much, it’s the film’s job to develop this premise in a satisfying manner and/or provide surprises from our expectations. Pet Sematary 2019 unfortunately does neither, barreling through the dramatic downtime when it could be developing its horror and unleashing standard slasher jump scares. When Louis is brushing his daughter’s tangled hair he runs his fingers over the metal staples in the back of her skull holding her head together. It’s a stark reminder that she is not the same, and it goes beyond her scraggly voice and unyielding stares meant to convey the same information. The film needed more moments like this, small details to unnerve and remind, rather than making her essentially The Ring girl from the start. The movie voluntarily eliminates its own storytelling runway, giving it little room to ramp things up and being forced to simply jump to the big bad killer demon girl. The filmmakers try and compensate somewhat by giving Rachel her own independent haunting, seeing hallucinations of her dead, twisted deformed sister. Those sequences reminded me of the slow stirring sequences in 2017’s It, drawing in the audience to dread what will happen next. It’s a side plot that could be eliminated entirely and I enjoyed these sequences the most because it was at least something pregnant with possibility.

Many of the new additions feel like the filmmakers are fumbling for something else to be scary because they’ve consciously or unconsciously admitted defeat with their zombie. She’s creepy, sure, but she starts at full creepy and stays there. We get things like animal masks reminiscent of 2013’s home invasion thriller You’re Next. We get the spooky visions of ghosts that the child can see. We get Rachel’s taunting visions that never feel fully integrated into the larger whole with any thematic value. It could have tapped into her guilt praying for the demise of her sister for a well-earned sense of relief, and this same feeling coming ahead anew with her reanimated child, challenging her to reconcile her past actions and personal culpability and goad her into action. But like most aspects of the supernatural be-careful-what-you-wish-for parable, it’s given precious little deliberation and instead it’s more standard thriller moments to goose scares. I do appreciate that the film takes its sense of bleakness to the very bitter end, departing from the 1989 original for an even darker conclusion. The only problem is that it left me wanting the sequel. By the end, I think many viewers will agree that they wish a Pet Sematary movie, at least one under this oh-so-serious-slasher direction, had started at this end point instead and gone forward, exploring the full ramifications of the larger world.

As is wont for the Internet, there has been some gnashing of teeth over the fact that the remake kills a different child, but I think this is the smart move. It allows the remake to stand apart from the original and chart a path of its own, not that it’s very far. It also boosts the practicality of what it can do for horror. As any parent may attest, there’s more to worry about what a nine-year-old can do than a two-year-old. Even reanimated and filled with supernatural power, it’s still a small child that can be overwhelmed. An evil pre-schooler has a bit more limited mobility for their murder rampages.

For fans of King, or fans of genre horror, there may be enough standard thrills and chills to enjoy the new Pet Sematary. In the extremely spotty spectrum of King movie adaptations, it’s definitely somewhere in the middle, not bad per se but nothing special.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Was Prometheus really as bad a movie as fans made it out to be? While the 2012 Alien prequel could be rather obtuse, and the characters made some of the stupidest decisions as reportedly intelligent scientists, it had an intriguing central mystery, moody sense of atmosphere, great sets, some viciously memorable sequences like Noomi Rapace’s self-directed surgical operation, and a delightfully supercilious Michael Fassbender bot. By the film’s end there were still plenty of outstanding questions unanswered, and so five years later director Ridley Scott has returned with Alien: Covenant to further confound and entertain. The crew of a colony ship takes a detour to land on a habitable world and trace the mysterious transmission belonging to the android David (Fassbender). As expected, all is not what it seems and the crew is almost immediately put into jeopardy. For fans who wanted more answers from Prometheus, there is a surprising amount of carryover to serve as a resolution for the prior film. There are a few big reveals, particularly about the xenomorph evolution, but the overall Alien storyline is moved just mere inches forward, slightly closer to the events of the 1979 original. The biggest problem with Covenant is that it’s too pedestrian for far too often. It sticks pretty close to the formula we’ll all familiar with, so we know it’s only a matter of time before the xenomorphs hit the fan. There is a dearth of memorable scenes here. The characters in Covenant aren’t that much smarter and make their fair share of stupid decisions (hey, let’s ignore the existence of wheat on an alien world or the possibility of killer microbes being in this breathable air). There’s just more of them to be killed off. The movie doesn’t really bother getting to know a far majority of them, consigned to the fact that they’re only here to be later ripped apart and exploded in gore. Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) does a fine job as a Ripley replacement. Danny McBride (Eastbound and Down) has some effective dramatic moments too. But the best reason to watch Covenant, an altogether middling Alien sequel/prequel, is for twice the Fassbender robot action (there’s a Fassbender-on-Fassbender kiss, which will likely break Tumblr). Alien: Covenant is a missed opportunity of a movie hampered by a disappointingly predictable script, tedious characters, and a lack of strong set pieces. It’s acceptable entertainment but not much more. The moral: don’t be a dick to robots.

Nate’s Grade: C+

You’re Next (2013)

youre-next-tiger-posterThere has been a notable rise in home invasion thrillers in recent years but I am doubtful we’ve hit the crest just yet (this may also be hope speaking since I co-wrote one). Perhaps in an age of real-life anxiety on the news, the invasion of our personal sanctuary strikes an even more horrific chord. Whether you argue the upswing began with Panic Room, or Funny Games, or even the old Audrey Hepburn feature Wait Until Dark, the message is universal: nobody likes having their stuff messed with. This year we’ve already had The Purge make a splash at the box-office, and I’m sure Lionsgate is hopeful that their indie horror flick, You’re Next, which has been reaping great buzz along the festival circuit for years now, will make a similar splash. For me, You’re Next checked every box I would want in an effective horror film: good thrills, good humor, and a good ending. That adds up to one hell of a good time at the movies.

Crispian (AJ Bowen) is traveling all the way upstate for a family reunion at his parent’s palatial mansion in the woods. He’s also going to introduce his new girlfriend, Erin (Charni Vinson), an Australian graduate student that used to work as his teaching assistant at his college. Crispian’s rich family includes his excitable younger sister, his obnoxious older brother, his youngest detached brother, everyone’s boyfriend and girlfriend, and mom and dad. In between a lively family discussion/argument at the dinner table, arrows start flying through their window. Three mean wearing ominous animals masks are stalking outside, armed, and with every intent to kill everyone inside. The masked killers leave ominous messages painted in blood, noting, “You’re next” (I know they’re senseless murderers, but points for using the correct form of “you’re”).  Erin snaps into survival mode and assembles a system of defenses but there are more threats than anyone imagined.

1374185285000-youre-next-03-300dpi-1307181811_4_3To take nothing away from the artistic merits of You’re Next, the biggest selling point, and its greatest attribute, is that it knows how to properly work over an audience. While nowhere near the genre deconstruction that was last year’s Cabin in the Woods, nor as clever, here is a movie that knows it’s a horror movie, knows you’ve seen these movies before, and knows what you’re looking for as an audience member. And once the killing starts, the movie also gains a delightfully macabre sense of humor, an impish darkness that will leave you chuckling. I heartily recommend seeing this movie in a packed theater because the collective response will add to your enjoyment, or at least it did mine. Never have I experienced a movie where the audience cheered the plugging in of an ordinary kitchen appliance with such reckless enthusiasm. Thanks to director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett, the movie packs great payoffs in its second half, as our prototypical Final Girl outflanks her attackers. There are enough twists and turns to keep things interesting and the pacing swift. Once those arrows pop, this thing just flies by, moving at a speed that keeps you satiated with scares, thrills, and humor. In essence, You’re Next knows how to have fun with an audience, and for whatever reason, with the glut of dank home invasion horror thrillers, this is a surprise. With all the family trauma and killing, watching their loved ones cruelly slip away in horrific fashion, it’s worth praise that Wingard and Barrett find a happy tonal middle-ground that doesn’t blunt the horror or the comedy. The laughs don’t feel out of place with the screams. They make this work. And there are some really sick laughs to be had too.

My only familiarity with Wingard is from his involvement in the horror anthology series V/H/S and The ABCs of Death. It’s also somewhat entertaining to note that all three movies, both V/H/S and its sequel, have been released before You’re Next, a film that was completed two years prior. His anthology segments didn’t point to the same level of promise on full display with You’re Next. Wingard does a great job of orienting his audience to the geography of the play area, so to speak, while juggling different simultaneous threats and maintain a sense of clarity. He knows when to hold back, and he knows when the audience needs a peak of something gruesome. Initially, with the animal masks and the attack on the wealthy, I thought the film was gearing up for a dose of environmental social commentary, as if the killers were extreme defenders of Mother Nature. I’m actually relieved that the film never picks up any ham-handed political subtext.

yourenextposterAs a horror movie, it’s far more effective than most genre deconstructions that will undercut the terror for the chance at a good joke. Even Cabin in the Woods was like this. Again, You’re Next can be riotously funny, especially in the last act, but it can also, and often is, quite suspenseful as well. Once the game get sunder way, you start playing along as well, guessing which of our participants will indeed be next. They place themselves in precarious positions often, especially early, which makes it all the more suspenseful, because you’re suspecting anything can happen at any time. You’re lying in wait, and Wingard does an excellent job of drawing out that tension to a peak level before hitting the horror or gore. There are some gruesomely bloody moments in the film but it doesn’t lovingly linger on the deconstruction of the human body. And just when it seems like the number of housemates fighting for their lives has gotten so low that the thrills would have to be successfully all wrung out, You’re Next supplies a twist that changes gears, introducing a new threat and a new level of dramatic tension. When Erin assembles an ax to smash into the skull of whoever opens the front door, you’re eagerly waiting for that Chekov’s gun to fire (Can we rename it Chekov’s Ax to the Face?). The fact that the movie is almost designed as a Home Alone for demented adults is ingenious.

The acting is a bit hit or miss but the standout, by far, is Vinson (Step Up 3D). She’s our lead heroine, yes, but she takes charge in a way usually reserved for men in these types of movies. She has all sorts of crafty experience with wilderness survival and setting up traps, plus she is able to marshal the family from a bunch of WASPs screaming their guts out into something of a fighting force. And plus, Vinson just has an awesome screen presence to her. It’s a great role for her but credit the actress for knocking it out, giving the audience a strong, extremely capable, and empathetic hero. It’s satisfying to watch the masked killers be outfoxed by their prey. Many of the actors in the film are filmmakers themselves (Joe Swanberg, Ti West, Amy Seimetz), and they’ve collaborated on numerous projects, including other lo-fi horror features, the new Splat Pack if you will.

If you’re looking for a fun horror movie with a dark sense of humor, then You’re Next should be next on your list. It’s savvy, scary, and knows how to goose an audience at just the right moments. Wingard and Barrett know how to give an audience what they want without pandering, and that’s what elevates You’re Next from its peers. This is a horror film that can scare you one minute, make you laugh uncomfortably the next, and then ultimate leave you cheering the vengeful dismemberment of human life with kitchen appliances. It is a more than effectively put together horror thriller from beginning to end.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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