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Willy’s Wonderland (2021)

I wanted to love Willy’s Wonderland. It’s easy to see the pitch: Nicolas Cage in Five Nights at Freddy’s. That sounds like everything you would need for a gonzo movie experience with, hopefully, an unrestrained Cage. The problem with Willy’s Wonderland is that it seems to have peaked at its inception. I’ll credit the creature designs of the many killer animatronic animals inhabited by the spirits of a dead Satanic cult demanding sacrifice. They’re chintzy and creepy and effective in their Chuck E. Cheese/Freddy’s reference points. However, the movie clearly appears to be out of ideas pretty early. Cage plays a janitor hoodwinked into working overnight at the abandoned pizza parlor and he doesn’t say a word for the entire movie. For those looking for the splendidly crazy moments that can define Nicolas Cage performances, I think you’ll be slightly disappointed. The character has a few quirks, like his surprisingly ironclad work ethic, but the character is just as underwritten, absent personality, and replaceable as any of the killer robots. For a movie where Cage fights a bunch of bloodthirsty robots, it starts to get a little boring because of the narrative redundancy. Toppling one robot after another feels too easy and the specific set pieces are unmemorable. There are a slew of highly annoying teenagers that stumble in so there are more victims to be terrorized. In one moment, these teens will denounce doing stupid acts and the unreasonable risk, and then the next minute they’re splitting up to go have sex in the scary birthday room or murder and not keeping their distance from the murder robots they know are alive and murderous. If the movie was more satirical, I might even give the filmmakers credit for the dumb teenagers reverting to form regardless of obvious circumstances. My disappointment is that what you get with any ten-minute segment of the movie is generally the same thing you’ll get with any other portion. It’s a lot of the same. Is that consistency or a lack of development and imagination? The movie still presents some degree of fun because that premise is enough to at least hold your attention if you’re a fan of horror, Cageisms, and movie kitsch. However, Willy’s Wonderland could have used more drafts and variety to really tap into the sheer gonzo potential of its ridiculous pitch.

Nate’s Grade: C

Hannibal (2001) [Review Re-View]

Released February 9, 2001:

Trying to sequelize Silence of the Lambs is surely harder than trying to sequelize The Blair Witch Project. The novel Hannibal by Thomas Harris I don’t think will be confused as a necessary burst of creative ambition and more of a chance to cash in on the love of Hannibal Lector. Though I’ve not read a line from the book from what I’m told the movie is faithful until the much hated ending. Starting a film off a so-so book isn’t a good way to begin, especially when you lose four of the components that made it shine Oscar gold.

The element that Silence of the Lambs carried with it was stealthily gripping psychological horror. It hung with you in every closed breath you would take, surrounding you and blanketing your mind. I mean, there aren’t many serial killer movies that win a slew of Oscars. Lambs excelled at psychological horror, but with Hannibal the horror turns into a slasher film more or less. What Lambs held back and left us terrified, Hannibal joyfully bathes in excess and gore.

Julianne Moore, a competent actress, takes over from the ditching Jodie Foster to fill the shoes of FBI agent Clarice Starling. Throughout the picture you know she’s trying her damndest to get that Foster backwoods drawl she used on the original down. The problem for poor Moore though is that her character spends half of the film in the FBI basement being ogled by higher-up Ray Liotta. She doesn’t even meet Hannibal Lector until 3/4 through. Then again, the title of the film isn’t Starling.

Anthony Hopkins returns back to the devil in the flesh and seems to have a grand old time de-boweling everyone. Lector worked in Lambs because he was caged up, like a wild animal not meant for four glass walls, and you never knew what would happen. He’d get in your head and he would know what to do with your grey matter – not that he doesn’t have a culinary degree in that department in this film. Lector on the loose is no better than a man with a chainsaw and a hockey mask, though he has a better knowledge of Dante and Florentine romantic literature. Lector worked bottled up, staring at you with dead unblinking calm. He doesn’t work saying goofy “goody-goody” lines and popping out of the shadows.

Since the director, screenwriter, and female lead didn’t show up for the Lambs rehash, it feels a tad chilled with Ridley Scott’s fluid and smooth direction. The cinematography is lush and very warm. Gary Oldman steals the show as the horribly disfigured former client of Lector’s seeking out revenge. His make-up is utterly magnificent and the best part of the film; he is made to look like a human peeled grape. Oldman instills a Texan drawl into the character yet making him the Meryl Streep of villainy.

Hannibal is nowhere near the landmark in excellence that Silence of the Lambs was but it’s not too bad. It might even be good if it wasn’t the sequel to a great film. As it is, it stands as it stands.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Serial killer culture dominated the 1990s and oddly enough it’s only gotten more highbrow since. Oh, that’s not to say that you won’t have any shortage of hacky, exploitative movies featuring elaborate murderers with gimmicky calling cards (The Hangman, a killer who literally stages his crime scenes like an ongoing game of hangman). However, the dark obsession with dangerous men (it’s almost always men) has given life to thousands of prestige cable documentaries, true-crime books, and high-profile podcasts like Serial and My Favorite Murder. We still very much have an unchecked fascination for these real and fictitious serial killers and what that may say about our society. In 1992, a serial killer thriller swept the Oscars, one of only three movies to win Best Picture, Actress, Actor, Director, and Screenplay (the others: It Happened One Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and American Beauty came close if it hadn’t been for Hilary Swank). That’s how good The Silence of the Lambs was as a movie to overcome the genre biases of older Academy membership (it also helped that there were other genre biases at play for the other Best Picture nominees like Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, and JFK). It was special.

All of this is to say that Silence of the Lambs was a near impossible project to follow, and author Thomas Harris proved it with the middling-yet-best-selling sequel novel in 1999. It was obvious that it would be adapted into a major feature film, but the only returning Oscar winner from that first foray was Anthony Hopkins, which is kind of important considering his character is the title. The sequel was directed by Ridley Scott (Gladiator), adapted by none other than screenwriting titans David Mamet (The Untouchables) and Steven Zallian (Schindler’s List), and the movie made over $350 million worldwide at the box-office. By all accounts, it was a hit, but was it any good, or was it simply coasting from the acclaim and good will of its predecessor and the A-list cast and crew?

The first thing that becomes immediately apparent while watching Hannibal is that this is not Silence of the Lambs and not in a sense of its accomplishments but more in its chosen ambitions. This is not a psychological thriller in the slightest. It’s a boogeyman monster movie. Nobody here is given to intense introspection about man’s inhumanity to man and other such Topics of Grand Weight. Scott’s sequel is more a Gothic B-movie content to spill stomachs rather than quicken pulses. The opening botched FBI raid is chaotic, action-packed, and the flimsy excuse for why Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore taking over for Jodie Foster) is shelved for most of the movie. It feels like the filmmakers know they need to delay the reunion of our favorite cannibal therapist and FBI agent as long as possible, so the 130-minute film feels like a protracted setup to tease how far audience anticipation can possibly be sustained.

In the meantime, the plot alternates between Dr. Hannibal Lector living it up in Florence, Italy and Starling slumming it in the FBI basement. Slowly, oh so slowly, she picks up the pieces to track Lector’s whereabouts, but until then we indulge a lot of narrative bloat. Do we need to follow an Italian inspector who suspects “Dr. Fell” is not who he says he is and then enact plans to prove his identity and eventually cash in? This man is literally on screen longer than Clarice Starling. We’re introduced to a rich villain, Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), but he’s more plot device than character, an all-expenses bank account to track and apprehend Lector for his bloody violence. I wish there was more to Oldman’s character given the actor and the impressive practical make-up application. He’s a symbol of rot, of vengeance, of obsession. Likewise, Ray Liotta’s lecherous FBI superior to Starling is less a character and more a plot device. He’s the stand-in for the harassment and dismissal Starling receives from her male colleagues, but a little of him goes a long way. His scenes where every other word is some creepy come-on, some sexual entreaty, or some off-color joke (he refers to Lector in homophobic slurs) are excessive. He’s an awful person but every line doesn’t have to be eye-rolling in how obviously terrible he can be. Spending extended time with all of these supporting characters is just a reminder that the movie is looking for excuses to keep its chief participants as far away for as long as possible. It’s frustrating.

The depiction of Hannibal Lector in Silence versus Hannibal is also quite noticeably different. Like most things in this sequel, the character is baser, key characteristics heightened and broadened, and bordering on farce. He’s less a scary intellectual opponent and master manipulator and more a well-read serial killer on vacation. He is profoundly less interesting in Hannibal. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a pleasure to be had watching Hopkins slice and dice his way through Italy and elude capture. Hopkins seems to relish the amplification of the campy and grand Guignol tone of the sequel. He looks to be having a blast as an unleashed beast. His performance is fun but teeters over into self-parody at times. Hearing the erudite man spout ironic catchphrases meant for incongruous comedy de-fangs some of his mystique and intensity.

And yet there are things I still starkly remember even twenty years later. Hannibal is no Oscar-winning thriller operating at an ascendant technical level with engrossing multi-dimensional characters. It’s a boogeyman movie with a scary old man. The ambitions are just lower, but that doesn’t mean that Hannibal is subpar by those lowered goals. It’s still entertaining even when it’s getting silly or overly long. Scott’s visual presentation keeps things engaging and the lovely Italian art and locales are a definite benefit to establishing the gory, Gothic atmosphere. The makeup is outstanding and, as I said back in 2001, Verger resembles a human peeled grape. Feeding a man to wild boars is also quite memorable. The conclusion still has its squirm-worthy high-point with serving Liotta’s fresh brains to himself. It’s a gory comeuppance that feels fitting. In the original book, apparently Starling then bares her breast to Lector, and he goes down on one knee, and they run off together as fugitive lovers. Needless to say, this ending was met with controversy. The film smartly nixes this, especially since I never for one second felt a romantic coupling between these two embittered characters. The movie doesn’t kill the allure of the Hannibal character but it also positions him on the same level as Michael Myers instead of, say, John Doe (Seven). It’s like a Halloween mask version of a real serial killer, dulled and magnified in some ways, but still leaving a fair impression of its source.

The Hannibal Lector incarnation had two more big screen ventures, the 2002 prequel Red Dragon and 2007’s even-further prequel, Hannibal Rising. Neither was terrific, neither was awful, though the answers that Rising offered as to what made Lector the man he is would inevitably prove disappointing (hello, childhood trauma). Arguably the best incarnation of the character, more so than Hopkins or Brian Cox (Succession) as the first big-screen Lector in 1986’s Manhunter, was from NBC’s television series from 2013-2015. Developed by Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies, American Gods), and starring Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale, Doctor Strange) as America’s favorite high-class cannibal, the series found a way to make a weekly crime procedural operatic and hypnotic and disgustingly beautiful. It’s like the artistic sensibilities from Silence and Hannibal were perfectly blended into a strange lovechild that deserved an even longer time to shine. Recently, just the week of this writing, CBS has begun a 2021 Clarice Starling TV series, though because of rights issues they cannot even reference Hannibal Lector. They have the rights to the senator and her daughter who was kidnapped by Buffalo Bill, as if those characters were what the fanbase was really clamoring for more time with. It looks like any other grisly CBS crime procedural just with a different name. I fully expect it to be canceled after one season.

Looking back at my review from 2001, I found myself nodding in agreement with my younger self from the past. I try not to read my earlier reviews before re-watching the films in question and perhaps might surprise myself by coming up with the same critiques independently. I also quite enjoy this line: “Lector on the loose is no better than a man with a chainsaw and a hockey mask, though he has a better knowledge of Dante and Florentine romantic literature.” I would even keep my grade the same. Twenty years later, the Hannibal Lector character still captures our intrigue and fascination even if he’s deposited in a lesser escapade not fully worth his full abilities.

Re-View Grade: B-

Freaky (2020)

A body swap movie set in a slasher universe, Freaky is a fun and gory romp that still feels like it could have been even more entertaining with the possibility of its premise. A masked serial killer (Vince Vaughn) stabs a teenage girl (Kathryn Newton) with a magic Mayan knife and they swap places and must learn to cope in their new bodies and roles. The teen-in-adult body is wonderfully played by Vaughn, who seems to be really enjoying himself with a silly role that pushes him outside his smooth-talking leading man roles. He might be playing up the girlishness and higher-pitched voice but his energy level is high and provides plenty of entertainment with the absurdity. There are a few inspired moments developed from the crazy premise, like when Vaughn has a heart-to-heart with his/her mother at work, able to offer insight into the daughter she feels she is failing, and the mother becomes romantically intrigued by this mysterious man. There is a first kiss sequence in the backseat of a car that is so awkward but owns its outrageous quality. I wish the movie from co-writer/director Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day) made better use of its fruitful premise. There are so many more bizarre scenarios that could be gleaned here, especially if the masked serial killer had more of a personality. Clearly modeled after the silent stalkers like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, this makes the film feel too one-sided with ideas. Sure the teenage girl is now to be feared, dresses sharper, and kills her high school annoyances, but it doesn’t make for much of a creative cat-and-mouse game when it comes to outsmarting the original owner of this new body. I will also champion the gory kill scenes as above average in their conception and execution. It’s really over-the-top and memorable and I wish there had been even more wild splatter. Freaky is a decidedly fun movie from the Blumhouse assembly line but I can’t help wishing it was a little bit funnier, a little bit weirder, and little bit more imaginative. The parts were there to make this hilarious and brilliantly creative, and settling for chuckles and disposable entertainment feels like a nagging compromise.

Nate’s Grade: B

The New Mutants (2020)

The story behind The New Mutants is decidedly more interesting than the movie itself, the last of the twenty-year span of Fox X-Men movies. There was a three-year gap in between trailers for this movie, an adaptation of a Marvel comics series and fronted by co-writer and director Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars). It was originally supposed to come out in 2017, and then it was delayed with the rumors that Fox wanted to push for a more prevalent horror angle. There were rumors of extensive re-shoots, possibly half the movie, and then the Disney merger effectively froze the post-production process, and then the rumors were that the film was removing all the elements to tie it into the X-Men universe, to stand on its own. Apparently, all of this speculation and the talk of re-shoots was a lot of hot air and the finished film is what was originally back in 2017, before the X-Universe imploded with the great Disney takeover. Because of the many years of delays and gestating rumors, The New Mutants became a strange artifact of another time and fans began anticipating how bad it might be and whether they might ever really see it. Finally released at long last, The New Mutants is only aggressively mediocre and thoroughly boring.

Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) wakes up in a strange asylum. She’s the only survivor from her reservation where something powerful and supernatural attacked. The medical facility is run by Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga) and secluded in the country. It’s also kept under a force field until the mutant patients make breakthroughs on their paths to processing their trauma and controlling their volatile powers. Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams) is from Scotland and was hunted as a demon by religious extremists. Illyana Rasputin (Ana Taylor-Joy) was terrorized by Slenderman-like intruders as a young girl. Roberto de Costa (Henry Zaga) accidentally burned his girlfriend alive. Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton) lost control in his town’s coal mine and is responsible for several deaths, including his hard-working father. Together, they uncover the sinister forces keeping them trapped and confront a powerful menace from the past to gain their freedom.

Even with years of curiosity and anticipation, once it got started, I found myself nodding off during The New Mutants. This is because the script by Boone and Knate Lee (Kidnap) is predicated on predictability. Of course, you know exactly what will be revealed about this so-called helpful medical facility. Of course, you know who will be revealed to be part of that conspiracy. So then we wait for the obvious plot turns and bide our time for close to an hour with each mutant experiencing their own It-style scary encounter with a trauma of their past. Since we have four additional supporting players, each contributes a PG-13 studio spooky set piece until we reach our most obvious reveal about who is responsible for their worst nightmares coming to violent fruition. Seriously, just having read the above, I guarantee that the majority of you can figure out all the spoilers I’m dancing around. This is the kind of movie that quotes the “two wolves” metaphor (“Inside every person are two wolves…”) though the internal animal is changed into bears to align more with Danielle’s native culture. Makes me wonder if every person has two of different animals fighting for dominance within them (“Inside every person are two really irritable ducks…”). This metaphor is hammered home multiple times so you better believe it’s going to relate to our final climax. Normally, I would cite this as smart screenwriting, layering in setups and connecting theme to a personal confrontation. The showdown though is so goofy and the final villain free of personality, because ultimately the final villain is a symbol, an idea, and that is too vague and prone to basic platitudes on fear and responsibility.

The characters are also a major flaw for The New Mutants. It feels like somebody was trying to follow a formula of popular teen movies and sticks with the stereotypical stock roles but gave it a slightly modern twist. Our lead character is indigenous. There’s a chaste lesbian romance. There’s a level of diversity here even if fans of the comics also have expressed insult at possible white-washing of a Brazilian comic character’s ethnicity. At its core, the characters are still the same high school cliche roles: the Mean Girl (Illyana), the Outcast (Rahne), the Tomboy (Danielle), the Jock (Roberto), the Poor White Trash (Sam). It’s not too difficult to imagine The Breakfast Club faces being reapplied into these familiar roles onscreen. They even have a cheesy “cutting loose” montage when their authority figure is away that might remind you of that John Hughes classic. Worse, the characters just aren’t that interesting, each defined by their past that figuratively and then quite literally haunts them. This leads to some intriguing moments of them reliving horror but no sequence makes any character more interesting. The fears don’t provide further insight. Illyana might be the most annoying character of the group. She’s immediately pushy, malicious, racist, and her combination of powers just doesn’t make any sort of sense (teleportation and a disappearing arm sword, huh?). The boys are boring but Danielle is just as boring as our lead. The only character with a spark of possibility is Rahne and her push against religious harassment. If you’re going to be trapped in a contained thriller with a group of super-powered teens, could they not be more interesting than this sullen lot of underdeveloped high school cliches?

For a movie that was supposed to be something different, it’s the flashes of horror that made me wish the extensive Fox re-shoots had been real. As a mystery or an action movie, The New Mutants isn’t going to be able to compare to the highlights of its fabled franchise. The action at the end feels rushed and sloppy. However, it could have found a tidy place for itself as a more adult horror movie within the broader X-Men fold. The spooky set pieces don’t have much to them because they’re meant as passing torment, reminders of negative feelings rather than extended sequences. They can be eerie and made me wish we could dwell further with this. A horror movie in a confined space with teenagers with powers they didn’t fully understand or couldn’t control, I can see the possibilities there aplenty. That’s what makes it all the more disappointing how predictable Boone and the filmmakers go with their one-off genre riff. The creepy Slenderman creature design is actually good, though I don’t really know if they are real in this world or a figment of Illyana’s childhood imagination. I don’t really know much about the rules of The New Mutants, so when it takes its turns, I was mostly shrugging and saying to myself, “Well, okay then.” Why do these super powered and angst-ridden teenagers never attempt to overthrow the one woman who patrols this otherwise empty facility? I watched Roberto repeatedly wash a giant soup vat in the empty kitchen when he could have been plotting escape. Who is consuming that much soup on a regular basis between the six of these people?

In short, The New Mutants was not worth its unceremonious three-year wait. It’s a middling super hero movie with flashes of potential, especially when it could have been something so different and new than any of the previous X-Men flicks. The movie is so easily predictable that I’m shocked more effort wasn’t put into its scary set pieces to better compensate. There are more twisted accents in the movie than genuine twists and genuine scares (your ears may bleed). It’s barely 85 minutes long and you feel like it’s gasping for breath by even that modest run. It never quite feels like the concept of a horror movie set with super heroes was ever really well imagined. If this is the actual preferred version Josh Boone always had in mind, it still manages to feel incomplete and underwhelming in execution. It’s not exactly a good comic book movie, or a good horror movie, or even a good movie. Thus ends The X-Men. Rest in peace.

Nate’s Grade: C

Evil Takes Root (2020)

A new horror movie was filmed around Columbus, Ohio by a fledgling studio, Genre Labs, and a group of filmmakers who have made other successful Ohio thrillers and is now available for digital viewing on multiple platforms. Evil Takes Root is the most impressive looking and sounding Ohio indie I have seen yet. I mean this in all sincerity when I say it “looks like a real movie.” Even the poster art looks snazzy.

Dr. Thane Noles (Sean Carrigan) is still mourning the loss of his wife Mandy (Constance Brenneman) from mysterious circumstances (vague voice mail, hanging from a tree, black eyes, etc.). His daughter Sarah (Stevie Lynn Jones) is struggling with her grief and befriends a girl, Christina (Reagan Belhorn), going through a similar loss. Christina is desperate to bring her mother back and is doing the bidding of a supernatural presence to make this wish come true. The result is that Sarah becomes the vessel for this evil spirit, a Baitbat, a mythological figure from Philippines’ culture. Felix Fojas (Nicholas Gonzalez) is back in town to investigate the death of Mandy, the woman he still loves after an affair many years ago. Felix is a professor and a big believer in the supernatural, and he strongly believes evil is present and busy in Ohio.

The production is glowing with professionalism that we associate with larger-budget studio ventures. Sure, you still slightly sense its lower budget in how much bang for your buck we get onscreen, but there are more than enough moments that impressed me from the technical aspects of moviemaking. The sound design is sensational. This has often been the biggest hindrance with local indies, and wow what a difference a professional sound design team can have on a horror movie. The creeping and scratchy noises of the Baitbat and its demonic intonations are unsettling and worthy of a few jumps. A great sound design team can goose any moment into being scarier. The spooky set pieces on their own weren’t imaginative or innovative but the sound design and photography elevated them. On the other side, this is a great looking movie, even with the drained color wash I usually dislike. Director and co-writer Chris W. Freeman (Sorority Party Massacre) knows how to make a horror movie with plenty of pleasing visual compositions by cinematographer Roy Rossovich (Union Furnace). Freeman is ready for a bigger stage, folks. There are a few instances of sweeping camera movements that made me go, “Whoa.” One involves a chase scene in the woods where naked witches run from their bonfire into the dark of the woods to kill an interloper, and the camera moves over the terrain with smooth velocity, and the way the fire illuminated the bodies as they went from one light source to another is simply stunning to watch. If it wasn’t for the topless women, I would expect a shot like that to be in the trailer. The focus levels, the way the camera movements enhance the frame and tension, even the use of a rain machine for mood, it’s all superbly impressive. The editing by Jason Heinrich and Jamie Marsh is great as well and makes the movie feel even more indistinguishable from Hollywood genre fare.

That impressive level of professionalism doesn’t extend to the story, sadly. Evil Takes Root is a very generic story told with very generic characters. I kept waiting for little moments to round them out, little moments to make me think differently about a character, to bring their conflicts into a new focus or coalesce their themes into the obstacles they’re confronting. I was simply looking for more personality than the five stages of grief at work. I can tell you what the characters do, as well as their larger plot designations, but I can’t tell you about who they are as people. There really isn’t one thing terribly interesting that any character does onscreen. They go about the discovery of the supernatural haunting, and then it’s concluded in a way that is anticlimactic in how easy it seems to be resolved. I read on another review that, according to the director’s commentary, that the movie underwent a troubled production and worked to fit footage that was shot many years apart. In that regard, it feels like a consistent product. I can’t see any obvious seams that show I’m watching a movie with significant scheduling gaps. Congratulations. But it also feels like any other small-scale Hollywood genre horror thriller, something like 2009’s The Unborn. Do you remember The Unborn? Do you remember it actually co-starred Gary Oldman? All that technical acumen put toward a mediocre story overstuffed with redundant characters (more on that below) and it’s a shame. The spooky set pieces are too short-lived and lack anything particularly memorable as well. Too much about this movie makes it burdensome to attempt to remember because it’s skating on generic and familiar tropes without leaving its stamp.

This is disappointing considering I haven’t really seen too many American horror movies tackle the mythology of the Philippines. There must be plenty of fun choices to select for a big screen fright fest and for a majority of Western viewers, it would be a new kind of monster. I desperately wanted to learn more about the Baitbat and what made this creature unique. However, we don’t even know what this malevolent creature is until literally the last ten minutes, and I have no idea why the filmmakers held that from the audience for so long. The Baitbat is the lone thing to better help separate this movie from the glut of other possession/demon movies, so I don’t know why you wouldn’t make it more of a feature and try and tap into that potential and history. The viewer needs to know specific rules related to this spirit and it’s only a hasty exposition drop at the very end where we learn what the spirit is and what it wants. Imagine The Exorcist if you never knew what was going on with Regan until the last ten minutes. The Baitbat is our chief antagonist. We need to know more and earlier in order to make the movie more interesting. The tree root-tenatcle design of the creature is creepy and lends itself well to low-light silhouettes, which makes sense why it was chosen for a cost-conscious production. Other wicked cool Philippines monsters deserving of horror spotlights include a manananggal, a creature that separates its torso to fly, and a tikbalang, a creature with the head of a horse, the body of a man, and the feet of a horse.

There is a shocking amount of redundancy in this story best exemplified by the glut of characters. We have two grieving fathers raising teenage girls, we have two men who loved the same woman who was killed in the opening scene, we have two spiritual figures trying to combat evil possession, we have two teenage girls struggling with their loss of their mothers, we even have three authority figures (doctor, cop, pastor) all inserting themselves into this strange case. There’s so much crossover with these characters and their comparative stories that I’m quite surprised the filmmakers didn’t do some serious collapsing to better prune their narrative. If you’re going to have such character redundancy, you would think you’d highlight their parallel journeys as well as whatever can separate them. This is done to some extent but the differences are usually superficially one-note and never really affect the plot. Take for instance the commonality between Felix and Dr. Thane Noles. Felix was the “other man” in an affair and never lost his feelings for Mandy, though she lost hers for him. Felix blames himself for Mandy’s death but he’s still hung up on her after nine years since their tryst. A smart screenplay would really dive into this character dynamic, two men who shared the love of the same woman, but each should be able to provide insight into creating a bigger picture of this woman. The kind of woman she was with Felix should be different than who she was with her husband, not necessarily better but different. This would then provide a bridge for both men to find a level of understanding through these trying circumstances, not bonding per se but each discovering a little more about the woman they loved, getting to learn something new in her absence. Unfortunately, the film leaves all this drama unfulfilled, using the shared love as merely an excuse why Felix sticks around and why Dr. Noles doesn’t quite like him. Why do we need two spiritual warriors too except for maybe some sort of Exorcist homage? Make these character points matter more.

The same scrutiny could be applied to both daughters as well. Why do we need both girls vying for screen time and going through the paces of the same story? Because of the juggling, they drop out for long stretches of the movie’s 95 minutes, like right after Sarah gets possessed. You would think that lost time experience, as well as her involvement in a murder, would be an enticing thing to further explore. You would think a spirit taking over her body and getting more oppressive would be a natural escalation with urgency to watch. We’d witness Sarah freak out as she wakes up from more and more shocking behavior. It’s an easy story because it makes sense, watching our possessed schoolgirl lose her mind and body. However, Evil Takes Root only tags in Sarah when it wants to, and this means her ongoing development as a demon vessel is curiously left underdeveloped. In contrast, Christina is immediately the more interesting character because she has a hearing disability and a lingering resentment over her father. Christina is even willing to explore with dark arts to bring her mother back from the dead. Dear reader, I ask you why can these two characters not simply be combined? If one girl is stepping into the supernatural, why not have her as the own affected? Why do her actions need to be carried out on a different character who has a similar back-story but who happens to not personally involve the supernatural to try and bring her dead mom back? Why have Sarah volunteer at a hearing-impaired school when we could just follow Christina at that same school from the point of view of someone who is already hearing impaired? These are the central relationships and characters and yet they could have been streamlined or retooled for more concise and developed drama.

Evil Takes Root is a horror movie that makes me feel stuck in the middle of praise and shrugging. It looks and sounds like a professional movie with real technical acumen, but it’s also a lot of effort to tell a deeply generic story with deeply generic characters and no standout set pieces. The sound design, editing, cinematography, and spindly special effects are impressive and seamlessly blended together. The monster needed more screen time. Nobody should be ashamed to have this movie on their resume, though the screenwriters (the director and the producer) might not feel that same degree of pride. Perhaps the mediocre story is a result of the production problems trying to make dispirit pieces come together into a meaningful and cogent whole. I cannot say. Whatever the reasons, Evil Takes Root is a very good-looking yet methodically generic horror movie.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Antebellum (2020)

Antebellum was originally supposed to come out in the spring and yet it only feels even more relevant today in the wake of months of protests over police brutality, the removal of Confederate monuments, and whether or not black Americans can attain justice in an imperfect system. Antebellum has also been flagged with overly negative reviews and accusations of being just another movie that exploits the horror of slavery for cheap thrills. After having seen the movie, I feel perplexed that so many of my critical brethren could not connect with the film and its finer points on the world we lived in and the world we live in today, inextricably linked.

Eden (Janelle Monae) is an enslaved woman surviving on an eighteenth-century Southern plantation run by Captain Jasper (Jack Huston) and the mistress of the land, Elizabeth (Jena Malone). Then there’s Veronica (Monae) who looks identical to Eden and lives in modern-day. She’s an author and academic speaker on social oppression and politics. How these two women are related, as well as past and present, will be revealed over the course of 100 minutes.

Antebellum is divided almost equally into 30-minute thirds, and it’s the structure that helps to aid in its mystery while also stiffling its larger implications. The first third is watching a plantation and the horrors of slavery; however, there are clues that something strange is happening. Little touches, character responses, a tattoo that seems too eerily modern. From there, we jump forward to the next third with what appears to be the same Eden, this time as a featured academic author. From here, if your mind is similar to mine, you’re attempting to bridge this connection and uncover how the past and present have become entwined. Is Veronica experiencing a deeply felt dream? Is it time travel? That was my guess before starting the film based upon the advertisement. I thought it was going to be a story about horrible racists from America’s past kidnapping black Americans to enslave. It’s a sci-fi angle that can make the material feel fresh, as there are more things to say other than the obvious and profound statements that “Slavery was terrible,” and, “It should never be forgotten or mitigated of its horror.” I also think it would serve as a rebuttal to those who ignorantly argue, “It was so long ago, why does it still matter? Get over it.” The past, in that instance, is literally ensnaring the present and forcing citizens to relive generational trauma. It’s that final third where Antebellum reveals what it really has been all along, and it’s a surprise but it also makes sense in the world that its meant to represent, leaning into a contemptible degree of human avarice that reminded me of HBO’s Westworld. It’s a fitting revelation and, as one would expect, the final third charges into an emotional catharsis as we watch Eden/Veronica fight for her freedom at last.

However, and this is a word I can already tell I’m going back to repeatedly to qualify my reservations, once the Big Reveal is known I wish we could have spent far more time dwelling in the implications of what exactly it means. I won’t spoil what exactly that reveal is but it’s definitely something that has plenty of social and political commentary and a reflection of our modern times and the injustices that have only been further highlighted this year. It’s such an interesting angle that I almost wish the filmmakers had re-prioritized their movie. Rather than structuring to best serve a mystery with a Shyamalan-style twist, it could have had its Act Two break be its inciting incident, revealing its twist as the starting point for the real terror. As a viewer, while I enjoyed the mystery and portentous mood of the movie, it presents a potent storytelling avenue that is far more compelling than the first two-thirds, but by then it’s too late. It works as context for the behavior and setting we’ve seen, both past and present, but Antebellum strangely suffers from trying to be too clever when a more straightforward version could have better tapped into its full dramatic and political commentary potential.

I was intrigued early on and came away genuinely impressed with the technical skills of debut writer/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz. The photography is often stunning and that goes for their visual compositions as well as their specific camera movements. The opening scene involves a tracking shot that starts from the front of the plantation facade, and that’s the best word, all prim and proper and beatific in appearance, before swooping behind and into the slave quarters to see the ugly reality behind that illusion. I didn’t feel like the filmmakers were simply using the backdrop of slavery as cheap genre exploitation. I felt their intentions were good. The horror of slavery isn’t downplayed but it’s also not overtly recreated just to add an easy splash of violence or terror. The movie relies more on implications, like Eden sleeping next to the plantation owner every night or an enslaved man finding his wife’s necklace in a charnel house among a scattering of ashes. The implication of the larger horror is there without having to be explicit. I’m reminded of the abrasively negative condemnations of Netflix’s Cuties insofar as people seemed to be missing obvious artistic intent. These are challenging and uncomfortable movies but movies with something to say, and Antebellum is not just a simple rehash of slavery tropes to turn black people’s historical suffering into slapdash slasher pulp.

Monae (Hidden Figures) is strong throughout and continues to build her case as a leading lady. She must register her fear in subtle ways without going into larger histrionics, but she maintains a quiet strength that keeps your eyes glued to the screen. Her time spent in the present, as the author calling out aging racist ideology, is bold and confidant and serves as a counterpoint to the woman we’ve experienced on the plantation. We know that woman is still inside Eden. Monae has a late scene set in slow-motion, with the music swelling, that simultaneously feels badass, uplifting, and like an American Valkyrie blazing against unchecked Confederate revisionism.

Antebellum is better than its reputation and offers more from an artistic standpoint than hitting the same points and rehashing the same traumas of the past. It’s a movie built around its mystery when I feel like it had much more it could have said with restructuring and more time spent after its final explanations. As a mysterious thriller, it’s tasteful, thematically involving, and technically impressive. It doesn’t even use the N-word once, which could be decried by some as unrealistic but also a sign of the filmmakers’ good faith to not merely use a shameful historical legacy for base titillation. It works as a thriller with more on its mind. However, and this is my last usage of that word, it’s that mind I was more intrigued by. Antebellum is a B-movie with A-level ambitions but a story structure that keeps it stuck as a well-polished B-movie.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Curse of Lilith Ratchet (2018)

At its core, The Curse of Lilith Ratchet is a low-budget horror movie stuck between two paths of entertainment and sadly reaching neither. It could have been a genuinely good horror movie, one where its concept begets creative ingenuity, like a Lights Out or Final Destination, where the set pieces are well developed, the characters are interesting and meaningful, and there are pertinent themes linked to character to make the horror more immediate and impactful. Or it could have gone a completely different route and declared itself a schlocky horror movie, owning a trashy flair of fun while doling out exploitation elements of sex and violence to provide the prurient thrills of genre satisfaction. Unfortunately, Lilith Ratchet isn’t good enough to be legitimately good and it’s not knowingly bad enough to be particularly entertaining. It’s just another disappointing low-budget horror movie with too little thought given to its story and characters and horror sequences.

A group of friends steal a shrunken head belonging to the notorious Lilith Ratchet, a Civil War-era woman who murdered her cheating husband with an axe and was then killed herself. She would curse anyone who would say her name and attached nursery rhyme. Alice (KateLynn Newberry) and her pals offer the famous head to popular paranormal radio host, Hunter Perry (Rob Jaeger). He broadcasts from a dance club for a special Halloween show and brings in volunteers for a game of hot potato with the shrunken head (again, this is designed for an auditory medium, which doesn’t seem wise). The evil spirit roams the Earth, striking down in order those who held her shrunken head, and Alice scrambles for a potential way out.

Here’s an example that hits both areas I cited above as it concerns that middle ground between well-developed horror and schlocky camp (mild spoilers I guess). Our first Lilith Ratchet victim, after the prologue, is abruptly run over by a car. This news does not reach his girlfriend, Lauren (Brianna Burke), until Alice delivers it in person, which seems beyond bizarre to me. Side note: cell phones do not seem to really exist in this universe. They do appear every so often, but when it comes to reaching others during times of crisis, or distributing key information, nobody picks up their phone to dial or text. They instead wait to hear face-to-face, and that consistent delay of communication breaks the tenuous reality of the movie. Writer/director Eddie Lengyel (Scarred, Mother Krampus 2) might as well have set the film during the 1980s or beforehand if modern technology matters so minimally. These characters are still talking about a popular radio show; not a viral podcast but, an alternative radio show. It doesn’t quite feel of today.

Back to my example, Lauren is informed her boyfriend has died. She retreats indoors to take a long bubble bath. She doesn’t exactly seem too broken up after her immediate response but hey we all grieve in different ways. Now, considering we’re dealing with a supernatural presence, why not take the form of the dead boyfriend? This would make the encounter more personal; the spirit could dig into Lauren’s suffering and perhaps any feelings of guilt, it would be an opportunity to open her more up as a character before her inevitable death, and it would simply be more interesting. Sadly, the film doesn’t go this route. Instead, she lounges in her bathwater and oblivious to the Big Scary Lady walking around the room. Then she’s violently pulled into the water and released, and this happens maybe four times. I don’t know about you but if I’m being yanked by a malevolent spirit in my bathtub, I’m getting out of that tub quick. Lauren leisurely tries to catch her breath. So, if we weren’t going with the more character-focused and developed death, then we should go for something memorable or truly horrifying. Instead, we get a woman being pulled under her bathwater and it happens three to four times. It’s not interesting and it becomes repetitious to the point of unintentional comedy. It’s also a bathing kill that veers away from T&A or anything too tawdry, which means it fails to register either as effective, engaging traditional horror and as schlocky, fun, campy horror. It just made me think of the obvious homage to Nightmare on Elm Street and then it didn’t offer anything more.

Even with its low budget, that didn’t consign The Curse of Lilith Ratchet to certain doom. The problems begin early when it comes to establishing its universe and its rules in a way that feels consistent and credible. The script requires plenty of sloppy exposition and a questionable structure of this information. We should know the rules of Lilith Ratchet early to play along. It isn’t until over an hour into the movie where the characters even piece things together. There are also scenes that have no need to exist or their placement is questionable. Do we need a scene where the characters chat with a local shop owner who warns them about his open “not for sale” display? If we cut that scene, then it presents the characters as more devious when they explain how they obtained the shrunken head. When we do get the Lilith Ratchet back-story, we get it twice, first when Hunter is presented with the shrunken head and then second on his paranormal radio broadcast. Why not condense this into one experience? Why not even open with the back-story, then pull back and reveal him on his radio broadcast, and then from there have the characters on his doorstep with the shrunken head, knowing from the broadcast he was a fan? That’s a cleaner structure. There is a weird plurality of scenes of people consoling Dylan (Roger Conners), but it’s always someone informing you after-the-fact about relationships. I didn’t know he was best friends with a murder victim, and now everyone on the street wants to console him like he’s an unofficial mayor of the city. It’s storytelling that’s trying to fill you in on significance after it matters. If you’re going to be late giving us information to understand the characters’ emotional states, don’t bother.

As a horror movie, there are too many moments that are expected. It feels like we’re running through the motions to include certain moments because they’re expected. The opening prologue introduces a threat and some mild gore, but the massacre of this sorority doesn’t have any larger ramifications for the entire story. We see some of the dead girls, which means that Lilith Ratchet can indeed take the form of the dead, but they don’t act too suspiciously. It’s simply a quick visual cue for the audience not to trust these onscreen women. If she can take this form, I wish she had done it more often, especially as people started getting dispatched. The opening also has what might be the funniest moment in the entire film. One of our sorority girls sees the evil spirit, runs upstairs, hides in her bathroom without locking the door, climbs into the shower as a meager form of protection, and this is even funnier because the shower is a clear glass door. I don’t know what she was expecting hiding behind a completely transparent cover in an accessible room. Are we supposed to ridicule this person? I don’t get the sense anything is done for laughs. Likewise, there’s a preponderance of jump scares in place of cleverly designed set pieces of terror. There’s nothing tailored toward Lilith Racthet’s personal history to make it her feel more than a generic haunt.

The real star of the movie is Lilith Ratchet and the actress behind the spirit, Crissy Kolarik (Mother Krampus 2). It’s rare for a horror movie to not just create a spooky creature but to even create an affecting silhouette, something easily identified and quickly felt. Lilith Ratchet is a great looking creation. She’s in a flowing Gothic gown, her clawed fingernails stretched at her sides, her Victorian era hairstyle and pale face. It’s a creepy image and Kolarik has a really strong sense of poise and presence as she patiently stalks the sets, enough that I was reminded of The Nun, another immediately creepy specter with a clearly identifiable silhouette. The backlit moments that highlight Lilith’s shape also have an unsettling impact. I wish that this evil spirit had a more interesting story to utilize this actress and setup. While the movie never calls for her to do anything terrible different, Kolarik excels at being the big bad boo and glaring menacingly.

Under its DVD release title, American Poltergeist: The Curse of Lilith Ratchet is a bit misleading considering she’s not a poltergeist. Or a demon. Or much of a ghost really. She’s kind of a walking idea, a version of the Bloody Mary urban legend. This lack of clarity and personal alignment is symptomatic of the movie as a whole. It’s certainly not a bad looking movie for its reported $15,000 budget. It has professional lighting that establishes a mood and solid makeup and gore effects, and even the score can have its draw. The acting is acceptable even with characters absent goals, dimension, or general points of interest. I have seen far worse movies with far bigger budgets. What I’m getting at is that The Curse of Lilith Ratchet had effective and appealing technical merits and a capable cast that could convey dismay and confusion. It had a starting foundation that could have delivered had they been given a good and interesting story. Alas, the screenplay feels too unfocused, sloppy, overcrowded, and lacking in direction and escalation and personal stakes beyond the obvious. We’re talking about stuff like an extended sequence of hot potato with a shrunken head for a radio show. If you’re not going to make smartly designed scary sequences, then perhaps try your hand at making a campy, gory, silly, knowing movie. The tongue-in-cheek version of this movie could have been a blast. The Curse of Lilith Ratchet is a middling horror movie that just comes and goes, leaving little impression other than a lingering sense that somehow it should have been better.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Rental (2020)

Dave Franco’s directorial debut showed me more promise than I’ve ever seen in big brother James Franco’s many, many directorial outings. The younger Franco also co-wrote The Rental with mumblecore/indie horror mainstay Joe Swanberg (Netflix’s Easy), and the movie is at its best when it feels like a really tense relationship drama with some creepy overtures for good measure. Two couples (Dan Stevens and Alison Brie, Sheila Vand and Jeremy Allen White) are renting a beautiful ocean-side cabin for the weekend. There’s a palpable tension early on as Vand’s character, a woman of Middle Eastern descent, challenges the homeowner why he chose to deny her bid over her white male co-worker. From there you quickly understand that she and Dan Steven’s character have a dangerous sexual attraction to one another and, after a drug-fueled night, circle each other hungrily and inevitably. I felt nervous simply waiting for them to cheat, and when they do, it sets the rest of the movie in motion because the evidence of their infidelity is what provides such an intriguing dimension of personal stakes. They discover a hidden camera in the shower head but it also means they are reluctant to go to the police because what if that proof is subsequently revealed? This delicious turn causes one half of our couples to conspire together and keep secrets from their significant others, and The Rental has a crafty and effective unease to it as the characters get more frantic, paranoid, and confrontational. There’s a solid hour of good material here with the relationship drama taking center stage in a creepy surveillance thriller setting. Franco also shows solid promise as a visual stylist. His ability to create an uncomfortable atmosphere of dread while maintaining pleasing, cleanly composed visuals is impressive. It reminded me at times of an Ari Aster A24 horror movie (Hereditary, Midsommar). Alas, it’s the last fifteen minutes that do The Rental in as it succumbs into being a boring slasher movie with a boring, and vague, killer. It fits with the parameters of the story being told but it’s the most boring and underwritten aspect, falling entirely on the mere iconography of slasher cinema to serve as external escalation. It’s a bit of a disappointment of an ending after such a promising and personal start. I definitely think Dave Franco shows promise as a filmmaker and a genre director who doesn’t sacrifice character for empty atmosphere, which is my most common complaint for much of atmospheric gonzo indie horror (see: Mandy, Neon Demon). At under 90 minutes, the movie doesn’t wear out its welcome and has enough juicy tension and drama to warrant at least one viewing. Hopefully, Dave Franco steps behind the camera again and hopefully he will write a better ending too.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Beach House (2020)/ Archive (2020)

Sometimes when watching a movie I will get disappointed because I sense a path not taken that should have been, an intriguing premise that hasn’t fully been developed, and I get sad that the movie I’m watching isn’t really the best version of its potential story. Call it the Black Mirror Syndrome (oh, hot take). I felt this same assessment while watching two small indie films recently released on demand, one horror and one science fiction. Each has its own artistic merits and each I felt wasn’t the best version of itself.

The Beach House follows a twenty-something couple on a beach side retreat. They have problems in their relationship, there’s an older couple who arrive at the same house, and after awhile the film essentially becomes The Color Out of Space, an atmospheric horror movie about humans dealing with a biological unknown. Something from the sea is coming out, via mist or jellyfish or… something, and it’s affecting human psychology and physiology. The Beach House is far too vague for its own good and takes far too long getting its story moving. I started falling asleep at several points, so my attention was not exactly rapt. It ends in an expected downbeat manner but without greater explanation or even theories about what is happening, and there’s just not enough story and drama present to fill that void. The characters come across a subdivision of beach homes mysteriously absent any neighbors. It reminded me of a Stephen King story beginning, an environment where something bad has transpired and the new characters have to figure it out. As far as creepy atmosphere goes, it’s fine, and there are moments of unnerving body horror, like a protracted sequence where our heroine fishes out a jellyfish tentacle inside her wounded foot. Still, the general obtuse nature of the entire enterprise, and the underdeveloped characters we’re stuck with, made this feel like a disappointment for all but the most desperate for atmospheric horror.

Archive follows one scientist (Theo James) trying to replicate his dead wife Jules (Stacy Martin) into a physical robotic form. She died in a car accident but he was able to save her consciousness onto a server available to consumers, but it will fray over time and only delays her inevitable passing, so he’s toiling away at a remote mountainous lab to create a new host to download her into. He’s gone through two different robots, each more complicated and more representational of Jules’ full brain; the first (J1) is like a box with legs and has the capacity of a child, the second robot (J2) is more like a teenager and reminiscent of the robot from I Am Mother, and the the third one (J3), under construction, looks the most human and will contain the full brain activity and hopefully the full Jules. Archive is fine and goes just about where you would expect, with exception to a last-minute twist that doesn’t make any sense. You can pick apart why it doesn’t work but I guess they wanted something shocking. The problem is that this movie needed to be told from a different lead perspective. Rather than being told from the scientist’s point of view as he doggedly tries to save the woman he loves, Archive should have been told from the second robot’s perspective. J2 looks at what her master is doing with the third, seeing the time and attention he’s putting into her, making her more feminine, and J2 feels pangs of jealousy and loneliness. She pleads for her master to make her better, asks why she isn’t good enough, and wants to be better while he essentially strips her for parts for her replacement. I felt so much for this second robot and her sad plight with a cold, selfish, oblivious creator. If Archive had been told from J2’s perspective, it could have been something special. She is going through a wealth of emotions, desiring to be all the things her creator projects onto his latest project, and she feels like she is failing him. When Archive focuses on its robots it’s at its best, and when it goes back to its human trying to avoid losing his wife one last time, it becomes too ordinary. It does have some commendable production values and special effects for a lower budget indie. I wish the movie could have been rewritten from the start and given us the superior dramatic perspective to serve as our guide.

Nate’s Grades:

The Beach House: C

Archive: C+

Becky (2020)

Imagine if Home Alone was more intense and populated with neo Nazis, and you’ll get a feel for Becky, a jubilantly gory, highly stylized indie thriller that might be as off-putting as it is entertaining. Kevin James, yes Paul Blart himself, gives an about-face turn as the leader of a group of Nazis that recently broke out of prison. With his bushy beard. swastika tattoos, and intensely quiet monologues, the stunt casting works out well, and James can be truly menacing. His band of goons are terrorizing a blended family in search for a macguffin of which just happens to be in possession of Becky (Lulu Wilson), an adolescent hellion they will soon reckon with. She knows the terrain of the family cabin and the woods and goes about picking off the bad guys one-by-one in fiendishly bloody, wildly over-the-top panache. That’s the real appeal of the movie, the various ways our pint-sized heroine takes down the Nazis. Directors Cary Munion and Jonathan Milott (Cooties, Bushwick) infuse plenty of visual style into their thrills, amplifying the intensity further, like a pounding camera edits and a walkie talkie confrontation between hero and villain where a series of pans makes it feel like they’re face-to-face. The film can be unsparingly brutal and hard to watch at times, walking a line between being darkly comic to simply being gross. Becky herself comes across like a brat and, as the killings continue, gleefully sociopathic. She’s still hurting from her mother’s death, she doesn’t want to have to save her soon-to-be stepmom and brother, but she’ll do it if it means killing more Nazis. One big tough Nazi has a crisis of conscience and demonstrates, at least onscreen, more depth than Becky. It’s all a bit too nihilistic by the end for my tastes. Becky ultimately is a movie about killing Nazis gory good and looking good doing so. If that’s enough for you, give it a watch.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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