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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-

The Ninth Gate (2000) [Review Re-View]

Originally released March 10, 2000:

The latest from old school horror pioneer Roman Polanski is a dark and brooding thriller that is… very long and brooding. What begins with noir charm and decadence grows thin by the movie’s over-bloated running time – giving new definition to the term “tedium.” The visuals are grim and noirish, but hang forever. Half of the movie is seeing Johnny Depp walk from Point A to Point B; and then the other half is watching him light up a cigarette usually already with drink safely in hand. Depp plays a librarian that doesn’t play by all the rules, or something or other. He’s set out to authenticate the last three books of a Satanic worshiper only to discover they lead to a path of devilish power. By the time Ninth Gate reaches its climax at an Eyes Wide Shut-style group gathering the audience has already hopelessly lost feeling in their ass. The vague ending is a cop-out after what the viewer is forced to go through to finally find out the secrets of these special 15th century books/doorstops. When it’s not carelessly lingering The Ninth Gate has some interest to it, but too often than not, it just rolls ahead forgetful of the audience that paid to come see it.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Times sure have changed for famous director Roman Polanski. He’s been filming movies entirely in Europe for years since he fled the United States to escape prosecution for rape charges. He even won an Academy Award in 2002 for The Pianist, though he wasn’t present to accept naturally. However, in a post-Me Too realm of improved scrutiny over the bad habits of bad men with power and influence, Polanski hasn’t had a movie with notable names since 2012’s Carnage. He’s made a few foreign-language films since but his sphere seems notably smaller, more confined, and more shut off from the industry and actors and moneymen that want to work with the famous director. They’ve even attempted to get him extradited back to the U.S. again. All of this cannot help but color re-watching The Ninth Gate, especially when it already plays upon memories of Polanski’s own Rosemary’s Baby. I wondered if this movie might actually be better twenty years later, and for a while I was feeling like my young film critic self was perhaps a little too quick to judgment. However, upon recent viewing, this is still a long and boring misfire.

The premise is slightly intriguing until you realize what it exactly entails. Johnny Depp’s character, Dean Corso, is a rare book evaluator and unscrupulous profiteer. He’s been hired by wealthy magnate Boris Balkin (Frank Langella) to authenticate a book reportedly co-written by the Devil himself and, if real, has the ability to summon Old Scratch to boot. Hey, we got something there for an intriguing horror movie that delves into the occult. And for perhaps the first act, The Ninth Gate works well enough to establish its mood and its central conflict. Then it just kept going. And kept going. And that’s when you realize that much of this movie involves one man traveling to different chateaus and other European estates to simply look at books. There are three copies of this rare Devil-penned tome, so Dean Corso is traveling to at least two different locales simply to compare and contrast books. I don’t think I’m fully articulating just how boring this can get. Imagine a significant other sitting beside you and deep in thought with a dense textbook. Imagine watching them read and make the occasional verbal noise. That is The Ninth Gate. Watching people read is boring, especially when it’s done repeatedly. There are MULTIPLE scenes of simply watching Depp look over a book while music plays. Film is a visual medium, and reading is inherently an internal function unless adjusted in context. It’s not like he’s deliberating over whether to send a text to a special someone, what the personal correspondence means to his concept of his family, it’s a man compare old books for a job. It’s not like he’s obsessed over this book for years or is a true believer of its power.

Some of this might even be permissible if the stodgy 133-minute film wasn’t so tediously repetitive (spoilers to follow). Corso is paid to authenticate the book but every person he encounters that knows a little about this book ends up dead. The book dealer he has stash the book? Dead. The old man with the second copy who says he’ll never sell his book not even if his life depended on it? Dead. The old lady expert with the third copy who despises Boris Balkin? Dead. By the time that wheelchair-bound woman is found to be repeatedly running into a wall, and upon further inspection has her tongue hanging out her mouth in an unintentionally goofy sight, the plot structure of The Ninth Gate has entered farce. Dean Corso doesn’t seem terribly alarmed by any of this or observant of an obvious pattern of events. He has several run-ins with goons and a mysterious blonde woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) that follows his every move. He seems comically oblivious to the danger all around him. Part of this is the repetitive plot structure where over an hour of the movie follows Depp going to a place, discovering one minor addition of information, finding that person dead, being chased, then repeating. It takes over an hour simply to note that there are minute differences in the engravings in the three copies of the devilish book. Then it simply shifts into a game of who can capture all the copies, which it should have been from the start, and would have introduced a very necessary sense of urgency from a prosaic script. Another reason for that general turgid feeling is that Depp seems to be sleepwalking through this performance absent emotion. Even Polanski himself complained.

This is a movie about a special book that can unleash the powers of the Devil, so why is the finished film so boring and frustrating to sit through? It has rival cults and business tycoons fending for ownership over that power. At least it does in theory. The fact that there are competing interests should have been a substantially larger element of the movie. Once Lena Olin’s rich widow character sleeps with Dean Corso to get the first copy back, she disappears from the narrative until the very end, where she’s dispatched without any intervention from her assembled cult of would-be Satanists. Seriously they just stand by and watch a guy strangle her to death and jump at the word “Boo!” They were never a threat even if they were responsible for one part of the mysterious stalkers. The other stalker, our ever-present blonde, will literally float at times and come to kung-fu kicking rescue, which made me snort out loud. It just comes across so goofy. Her identity is clearly in a supernatural answer but the movie never fully explains who she is, what her real motivations are, her allegiances, and even what the ending is supposed to mean. After 133 minutes, it’s egregious that Polanski doesn’t provide a conclusion that feels even fleetingly conclusive. The whole movie is a mystery that moves with irritatingly incremental steps that leads to one big shrug.

I can see the appeal of the idea of this story but I don’t see the appeal of making The Ninth Gate as is, beside visiting some fabulous locations in Portugal and Spain. Why get an actor of Depp’s caliber if he’s going to read on camera and not worry about his encroaching danger? Why does this movie need 133 minutes to set up a plot that could have done it in 100? I think Polanski was eager to revisit the old school horror of his early works and didn’t sweat the details. Mysterious castles of old. Dangerous strangers. Cults. The Devil. Book authentication. Okay, maybe not that last part. I suppose one could charitably say Polanski is trying to establish an unsettling mood with patient-yet-paranoid camerawork and a story that feels unhurried. It feels to me like Polanski doesn’t know what movie he wants to make and is in no rush to get there. The most overtly horror moments fall into self-parody. That’s really where the movie errs for me. It takes great horror story elements and says instead of running with cults and the Devil, what if we focused more on the slow authentication of dusty old books? Not their power or meaning or value to devious men and women, but on whether they are real. That would be like finding a treasure map and then trying to make sure the ink was authentic for its era rather than, you know, hunting for treasure.

My original review twenty years ago is a bit harsh and angry, though I can understand why especially after such an anticlimactic ending. I would say the movie is more than watching Depp walk from Point A to point B, though to be sure that is heavily represented onscreen. I might even slightly raise my letter grade but the criticisms still stand as stated. Even twenty years later, with a fresh set of eyes, The Ninth Gate is a disappointing story that says too little and takes too long to do so.

Re-View Grade: C

The Wretched (2020)

Very reminiscent of Fright Night, this movie feels like a lost relic to 80s coming-of-age movies and horror-next-door thrillers, and it’s generally great. We follow a teenager who is staying with his father over the summer; he’s also recovering after a drug-related accident. He’s convinced that his neighbor is really a witch who kills children and then fiendishly erases the memory of those children from the families she has inserted herself into. Nobody will believe him, especially with his past drug abuse, so he takes it upon himself to investigate the strange goings on, Rear Window-style, and potentially save lives once the witch is forced to jump into a new host and terrorize a new family. The Wretched is barely 90 minutes long and is splendidly plotted with every scene being meaningful, advancing the plot, shading characters and conflicts, heightening the stakes and suspense. The new-kid-in-town and young crush story elements work as well as the creepy horror. Overall, it’s a very fun movie that can switch modes when needed, being funny or sincere or spooky, and it does each with great finesse and execution. Writer-directors Brett and Drew Pierce (Deadheads) have a great affection for their characters as well as their material. It shows in the level of thought they give even small details, finding clever ways to serve payoffs as well as work emotional investment into a briskly told tale. There’s a very late twist that I should have seen coming but made me want to start clapping, and it works entirely within the carefully set-up rules of the supernatural monster and supplies an organic elevation to the stakes. I only wish the movie had given me even more. The Wretched is a charming throwback and proof positive that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel to make a good horror movie, just keep to a vision and see through the story to best serve and elevate that vision. It’s well worth your 90 minutes and I predict a bright future for the Pierce brothers.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Verotika (2020)

Misfits frontman Glenn Danzig loved the heavy metal aesthetic of big breasted ladies, fetish outfits, hulking monsters, and splashy gore, enough so that he started his own comic line in the 90s, Verotik (a portmanteau of “violence” and “erotic,” and yes that’s the explanation). They even adapted one of his comics, Grub Girl, into a 2006 adult movie, and I pulled this synopsis directly from Wikipedia: “One of the victims of the radiation is a sex worker whose scarred body is taken to a laboratory, where she wakes up while being sexually abused by a pair of necrophilic scientists, whom she kills on account of having given her ‘the worst f*** of my life.’ Grub Girl adjusts to being a zombie and returns to being a sex worker, discovering that being undead is advantageous to her career, as she is immune to disease and nearly impervious to pain.” Yikes. Anyway, Danzig took three of his comic tales and packaged them together into a low-rent horror anthology movie dubbed Verotika. Unfortunately, the final product is nothing short of one of the worst movies I have ever seen in my life. It is stunningly, exceptionally terrible in all facets.

I was left dumbstruck by the level of incompetence over the course of 89 ponderous minutes of awful. This goes beyond Tommy Wiseau and Neil Breen into downright Ed Woodian territory of ineptitude. I couldn’t turn away because I was trying to simply process everything I was seeing onscreen, to boldly attempt to understand so many choices made by Danzig as a filmmaker and storyteller. He serves as writer, director, and co-cinematographer. The finished film is not the so-bad-it’s-good derisive highs of Wiseau and Breen’s bemoaned catalogue of misfires. This is more just a slack-jawed “what were they thinking?” stupefied curiosity of an After Last Season (the worst film of the first 2000s decade, a movie so bad its small distributor asked theaters to burn their prints rather than ship them back). It’s not fun but baffling. It’s not silly but lecherous to the point of misogyny and discomfort. At no point are you transported to the weird imagination of an avant garde artist but instead you’re beset by huge lapses in filmmaking basics and a dearth of recognizable plot. With Verotika, there are no stories, only story premises that go nowhere and nowhere slow. While only 89 minutes long, it might be the most joyless, turgid, pointless 89 minutes I have experienced since After Last Season made an MRI machine out of paper print-outs.

Allow me, dear reader, to describe for you the very opening minutes of Verotika, and please also understand that it only gets worse from there. The first segment is called “The Albino Spider of Dajette,” and it’s set inexplicably in France, which hamstrings every actor with a regrettable Pepe LePew accent that makes the segment even more ridiculous. Danzig could have spared his actors, who were clearly not capable of replicating French accents, the embarrassment but no. The opening minutes involve a busty woman, Dajette (Ashley Wisdom, porn actress), performing oral sex on a guy. He excitedly attempts to lift up her shirt, much to her chagrin, and is shocked to find that Dajette has eyeballs where her nipples should be. Yes, you read that correctly, she has literal eye nipples. The man leaves in horror and Dajette huffs dejectedly, “Not again.” These eye nipples will never amount to anything important, which is so confounding. Why include them? Her eye nipples cry a tear, which rolls down her breast and lands on a CGI spider, which then grows into a giant albino spider-man (Scotch Hopkins) with two working arms. This evil spider-man only comes out when Dajette is asleep, though she’s not sleeping now, so? He has a thirst for murder and sex and tells a prostitute he wants to rape her in the ass and then kill her. Her nonchalant response made me stare in amazement: “Ass f*** is my specialty.” Reader, I have described for you only the first few minutes of this entire segment. What is going on here?

The rest of this tale becomes repetitious as the spider-creature stalks and snaps more women’s necks, earning the moniker the “Neck Snapper” from the French media (imagine the strained pronunciation as “Nyek Snauhpah”). Dajette wanders around to stay awake, and this includes entering an adult film theater where the patrons conspire to gang rape her as soon as she nods off. She also enters a café where someone else’s cup is already waiting for her. Seconds later, a waiter asks if she wants any refills (“refeeelz”), and she declines and pays… for someone else’s cup of coffee? Here’s a prime example of the filmmaking shortcomings of Danzig. It would have been incredibly, stupidly easy to improve this scene simply by starting with Dajette at the table. By combining two shots of her walking along the street and then a shot of her indoors, still wearing her coat, and walking to a table, you are communicating an approximation of time. She has had no time to order her own coffee. All he had to do was start with her already seated and we could assume the cup was ordered off screen and before the edit. Verotika is replete with preventable bad decisions.

Astonishingly, this segment is actually the best of the movie and each only gets demonstrably worse and more pointless. “Change of Face” is a clear homage/rip-off to 1960’s Eyes Without a Face as we follow a stripper/serial killer known only as “Mystery Girl” (Rachel Allig) as she slices off the faces of beautiful women to wear as her own. Our killer wears the faces of her victims to cover her own scarred visage while she strips for her customers. Considering she wears a mask to cover her face anyway while she dances, the face-removals seem gratuitous. If you’re looking for any clear motivation for this killer, even the simplest explanations, then you’ll only be further disappointed. Again, it would be so stupidly easy for Danzig to characterize the “Mystery Girl” as murderously jealous of the beauty denied to her, or present some insecurity that her stripping career and income will be shuttered if she cannot fix her face. Anything would have worked. Instead we simply get an absence of thought and development; this segment is taxed with several minutes of watching women lackadaisically walk around a stripper pole. It feels like Danzig had access to a strip club set for a day and was determined to use everything he shot. The epilogue of this segment even involves more lackadaisical dancing around a pole. The only thing that enlivens this segment is the acting of Sean Kanan as the detective tracking down the murderer. He talks like he’s trying to imitate Batman’s gruff voice and his chit-chat is blasé to the point of anti-comedy ironic perfection. “There’s your motive. They wanted a face,” he says. His big break in the case is finding a business card at the crime scene. Why would a stripper have a business card and why would this man assume she must be the killer? That would be like finding a carton of milk at a crime scene and declaring that the milkman was your top suspect.

The final segment is the most pointless of them all and feels like it should be visual accompaniment for talking heads on a History Channel special about Elizabeth Bathory, the notorious 16th century Hungarian noble who would bathe in the blood of virgins to stay young and vibrant. “Drukija Contessa of Blood” stars Alice Tate (Snowbound) as a woman who rubs blood on her face and body. That is literally the plot for thirty minutes. She slices some helpless women’s necks. She luxuriates in a bath. She rides a horse. She decapitates a runaway. She eats a woman’s heart while that victim inexplicably still writhes in agony well after the fact. There isn’t even the faintest hint of a plot here or characters. You would think we would follow one of the imprisoned women as she plots an escape. Once again, it feels like Danzig had access to certain elements that he was going to make sure got their overexposed spotlight. We watch Drukija stare into a mirror and make poses for several minutes. We watch Drukija sit in her creepy skeleton-lined bathtub for several minutes. We watch her ride a horse for minutes on end. At no point does Danzig offer a reason for the audience to care about anything happening on screen. The cruelty just becomes boring and as gratuitous as any other unfortunate moment in this unfortunate movie. The whole segment feels like watching a bored model on a cosplay photo shoot.

The fundamental lack of story, characters, conflict drives me nuts, but the movie fails just as badly on its technical merits. I can excuse some lapses in filmmaking from a continuity standpoint as long as they are not glaring to rip me out of the movie. Anyone that nitpicks the placement of bed sheets from shot-to-shot rather than emotional engagement and narrative drive is simply watching movies wrong. However, Verotika is complicit in making the kind of goofs and mistakes you’d associate with a schlocky student films and not a (gasp) million-dollar horror movie. Danzig favors ending every scene in a fade out, and I’m not exaggerating when I say “every.” It’s like he doesn’t know when to end his own scenes (more on that below). There are specific limitations in the makeup and production design, but then why feature camera angles and lighting that expose those limitations? Things like the crotch of the spider-man being blown wide open and visible on camera or a superfluous CGI floor Drunkija struts over. There are a proliferation of lens flares, which I think Danzig feels are “arty,” and they do provide a brief respite from the very grimy, over exposed photography that can be dispiriting. Even with a million dollars, this movie looks depressingly cheap. Then there are sloppy mistakes nobody bothered to correct. The neon “café” sign that Dajette enters is above the café window, not over it, and facing inward, which means no potential customer from the outside would get the benefit of the sign. Murder victims are extremely unmotivated to get away from their eventual killers. Certain physical confrontations are so confusingly staged that character geography will alter in a flash like a scene was missing. A shaken police officer laments “if the press finds out about this” about the THIRTEENTH murder victim. I think the cat’s out of the bag, fella. Why do we need an Elvira-styled host (Kayden Kross, porn actress) making bad puns to introduce segments?

As a director, Danzig leaves his actors adrift with awkwardly non-existent guidance. It becomes readily apparent that Danzig was afraid to call cut too soon because many shots will linger on long after the point has passed, leaving actors to fidget or look around, waiting to be told the take was over. Sometimes this involves literal minutes of an actor doing something repetitious while the camera will zoom in and out continually. There are moments where the camera will duck around, unclear about what it’s meant to frame, looking for its subject or composition like a documentary filmmaker on the spot. Every actor suffers from this and shots and scenes have that uncomfortable feeling of dragging on haphazardly, missing the rhythm of film narratives. I bet you could shave those extraneous seconds off every scene and trim 15 minutes total. As a result of actors given bad material, nascent characterization when evident, funny accents, and little to no direction, there are plenty of actors struggling to perform whatever they’re intending.

Even as a low-budget sleazy exploitation film, Verotika cannot even succeed by that metric. The gore effects are few and far between and Danzig likes to linger over what he can get, much like other elements. If he bought the makeup for one girl to be skinned faceless, you’re going to see that effect a dozen times. When the Contessa is chomping on a heart, the proportions are so out of scale that it dulls the impact of what is a fairly good prosthetic otherwise. Even when it comes to gratuitous sex and nudity, the movie seems oddly inept. During the interminable stripping scenes of “Change of Face,” the women don’t actually strip while they lethargically spin around their poles. The women on display are more fetishized as murder victims than they are as sex objects. Why include eye nipples and then do nothing with them? Where did they come from? Is this a genetic thing? Did Dajette’s mother have eye nipples and nurse her from them? My pal Ben Bailey came up with a better storyline with “eye nipples” on the spot, gifting them laser powers and a thematic angle about striking back against handsy men who won’t respect consent. Boom, right there, a better use of weird exploitation elements and he was only joking around.

With every conceivable level of filmmaking and storytelling, Verotika shows that Danzig is not remotely ready for the big screen. The paltry story is kept at premise-level, there’s a decided lack of characterization and stakes and intrigue, lots of repetition, and shaky direction that leaves actors astray with over-extended scenes. Even as an exploitation movie, you will be sorely disappointed. As a hopeful heir apparent to the so-bad-it’s-good club, Verotika is not the next The Room. Not even close. It’s bad and inept and boring and flabbergasting but it lacks the bewildering appeal of the best of the so-bad-it’s-good crew. It lacks a sense of sincerity. I doubt Danzig thought he was making great art or even something cool. It feels like he took a music video concept and bloated it to bursting (Danzig’s music is a constant background presence). Danzig actually has another movie scheduled for release this year, Death Rider in the House of Vampires, starring Devon Sawa, Julian Sands, and Danny Trejo. I can only hope he’s learned from this baptism by fire (and blood) and surrounds himself with professionals who can carry the burden when he falters.

Nate’s Grade: F

Gretel & Hansel (2020)

I feel bad for select audiences that went into Gretel & Hansel expecting a cheap thriller because what they really get is an atmospheric art movie that, even at a mere 80 minutes, moves at a very placid pace. Director Osgood “Oz” Perkins (The Blackcoat’s Daughter) takes the bones of the classic Grimm fairy tale and presents it as a feminist retelling of outcasts coming into their own feminine power and the costs of giving over to that power. The titular siblings are cast out by their mother after Gretel refuses to be a maid for a creepy older man very interested in hr “maidenhood.” They stumble upon the dwelling of an older outcast and she supplies plenty of food, but where exactly is it coming from? Gretel experiences strange dreams that portend to a witchy power of her own making, but she’s scared about what she may become and what may befall her brother, who the older woman deems Gretel’s “poison.” The story is a bit strained but the movie is visually luscious to watch. The photography and production design are exceptional and greatly lend the movie a transporting atmosphere that, coupled with its stodgy pacing, creates the sensation of experiencing a waking dream. The camera uses a lot of stark wide angles and centered compositions to heighten a sense of unreality. My favorite moments were the older Witch (Alice Krige, the Borg Queen from Star Trek: First Contact) was coaching Gretel on her inherent power and the sacrifices necessary for her to achieve her potential. She advises “trusting the darkness,” which sounds ominous enough. Because of the general familiarity with the fairy tale, the movie gets more leeway to fill its time with fantasy diversions and a slow build of horror revealing the disturbing process of how the feasts of food become prepared. It almost feels like the movie is reaching a breaking point with how lagging that pacing is, but then it generally gets back on track with a new revelation or complication. Gretel & Hansel is an enjoyably moody, stylish, equally beautiful and unsettling movie that’s heavy on grim and light on plot.

Nate’s Grade: B

Fantasy Island (2020)

I wasn’t expecting to become a defender of Blumhouse’s much-reviled remake of 1970s TV staple, Fantasy Island (it currently has a 7% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes) but this year has been defined by surprises. I’m not going to say that this is a good movie but turning a cheesy TV drama into a horror thriller that might as well take place on the magical island from Lost, I have to admit that’s a daring approach and it almost works. Michael Pena is miscast as a villainous Mr. Roarke who invites a group of strangers to a beatific island resort to have their fantasies come true be they hedonistic (wild parties with sexy guys and gals) or vengeance (Lucy Hale getting even against a high school bully) or regret (Maggie Q saying yes to a proposal and starting a new life). At first the fantasies seem too good to be true and then the darker reality comes forward, forcing many characters on the run. I was very happy that the filmmakers, the same creative team behind the equally-reviled Truth or Dare, present the proceedings as being clearly supernatural and stick with it. I was expecting some hackneyed explanation of how it was all a show, or a simulation, or some kind of televised event for the rich to gamble upon, but the movie stays supernatural to the end as if it is the Lost island with its weird secrets. Because of that scenario, even when the rules of the island and the final scheme comes to light as to whose fantasy all of this pertains to, it’s a forgivable level of convolution. There were moments I even had fun, mostly just seeing how crazy and far away from the source material everything can get. It felt like if someone was ordered to remake The Love Boat and came up with Ghost Ship. It’s just fun how different it can go. I didn’t care for any of the characters outside of Maggie Q, who gets the best acting showcase as a woman with many regrets who is trying to ignore her misgivings. Hale seems to be playing a character ported from the Spring Breakers universe (what a dreadful thought). Michael Rooker (Guardians of the Galaxy) appears as a grizzled veteran of the island. Even when things aren’t working, like black-eyed zombies or much of the comedy, I wasn’t ever bored. How crazy would things get next? How would they tie this all together? Fantasy Island is not the horrible experience critics claimed earlier this year. It’s not a great movie but it works as silly escapism, and during a time of pandemic-initiated quarantine, a little silly escapism might just be what you need for a couple of hours.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Hunt (2020)

hunt_ver2Has there been a movie with worse luck than The Hunt? It was originally scheduled to be released in late August 2019 and was postponed after the back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. Its studio, Blumhouse, pulled the movie out of sensitivity and rescheduled it for March, trying to draft off some of the latent controversy once President Trump caught wind of its liberals-versus-conservatives battle-to-the-death premise and tried to make political hay from it. The marketing highlighted quotes from political figures and writers and asked audiences to judge the controversy for themselves. Flash forward, and the new release date was pretty much the last weekend of theatrical action in 2020. Thanks to the worldwide spread of COVID-19, very few people ventured out from the safety of their socially distant homes to the movies, and it’s only become more dire since. Now just about every wide release has been scuttled from the release date from March into the middle of the summer, and who knows how long this may carry on for. The Hunt may be the last new theatrical movie for the foreseeable future. Thankfully, Universal made their theatrical releases available on demand (this may be an irreversible new reality of distribution) and I watched The Hunt at home. I home hunted, and I’m glad I did. If you’re a fan of Ready or Not and You’re Next, then The Hunt and its shocking violence, demented humor, and political satire might prove appealing.

A group of strangers wakes up gagged in a field. They’re given weapons and then the hunt is on from an unseen force. Crystal (Betty Gilpin) is trying to make sense of where she is, what is happening, and how she can escape into safety and who she may be able to trust.

c7f31a20-4d03-11ea-9bfd-a9714bb423baI was consistently laughing throughout The Hunt and amused at its breakneck twists and turns. It’s a film that lets you know very early that it’s willing to go to some dark and twisted places. It throws a lot of characters immediately into the grinder, as you go from following one person who is ultimately slain to another person who eventually meets the same fate, and it creates a desperation of trying to find an anchor. It also makes it feel like anything can happen at any time, that whatever might seem normal could really be hiding a dangerous reality. It’s the kind of movie that isn’t below throwing a grenade down someone’s pants. It has definite satirical sights but that doesn’t stop it from being an enjoyable dark and thrilling little movie. Once we settle on our main heroine, the new joy becomes her ability to see through the facades of different scenarios and fight back, again and again. It’s a wonderfully executed setup of giving us a very capable fighter who is constantly underestimated and then watching her opponents toppled. Each new scenario gives us someone to root for and a new mini-boss to foil. The film becomes a series of escalating payoffs tied to the smartest person making others pay for their mistakes.

I always thought the anger that conservative pundits, and Trump, assailed The Hunt with was misplaced considering that, given the premise, it seemed very much like the liberal elites were the villains. For most of the first act, this is the case, as we’re dropped right into the mix and left to learn on our own much like the hunted conservative characters. We are put in their shoes and don’t even see who may be hunting them until 15 minutes in. For the opening of the movie, it’s like the beginning of the Hunger Games. What is this crate? Why is it filled with weapons? What’s the deal with the pig? It’s a game that you’re trying to learn the rules of while bullets are whizzing by heads, and sometimes splattering into them too. Unquestionably, our allegiance is with these vulnerable people trying to make sense of this madness and survive. We see their humanity. When they do finally encounter their predators in disguise, the liberals can barely conceal their contempt and prejudices. If anyone is actively rooting for the predators after the first act, then they haven’t been paying attention or were too far gone with empathy.

However, the movie does start to take a turn the longer we spend with the hunted conservative characters, all but one not given official names (the list on IMDB cites names like Staten Island, Yoga Pants, and the parenthetically-enabled, (Shut the F*** Up) Gary). They begin to play into the same overblown prejudices and negative stereotypes of their across-the-ideological-aisle peers. As The Hunt continues, it becomes more and more apparent that screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse (HBO’s The Leftovers) have crafted a political satire that takes aim at both sides (more on this specific aspect later). Eventually the real target reveals itself to be extremism and how it can cloud one’s judgement and ability to see other people on human levels. There’s a late scene where a conservative figure confronts the liberal designer of the Hunt, and they get into a circular argument over which side is responsible for the creation of this death game. It’s a hilarious blame game but also emblematic of what happens when people try to play on the same level as conspiracy theorists who distort reality to their pre-selected biases. Sometimes in politics you need to fight fire with fire and sometimes that extra oxygen only makes things worse.

11hunt-superJumbo-v2Now The Hunt does have an issue with its “both sides are to blame” approach and that’s the false equivalency of the danger of right-wing and left-wing conspiracy clans. Right-wing militants are the ones saying Sandy Hook was a hoax with crisis actors, that Jade Helm was a military plot to take over the states, that scientists are in a cabal to bring down the petroleum industry, and cooping Americans up from COVID-19 to damage Trump, that immigrants are bringing crime and disease into the United States, and other such nutjob ideas. While left-wing extremists can be callous and have their own science denial problems (GMOs, vaccines), they aren’t the ones taking arms, storming federal buildings, sending pipe bombs in the mail, killing anti-Nazi protestors with cars, and shooting brown-skinned strangers in a Wal-Mart parking lot. One of these two ideological sides seem far more likely to support dangerous extremism than the other, especially with a man in the Oval Office who seems to wink and nod at these reactionary elements in approval. While the “both sides are bad” approach to satire allows The Hunt and its filmmakers more ground to market their movie to a wider audience sick of extremism, it’s also a dubious false equivalency that deserves to be called out.

Betty Gilpin (Netflix’s GLOW, Stuber) is the star of the movie and a force of nature. She’s capable, cunning, disarmingly physical and perceptive, and she creates wonderfully bloody havoc. She is a delight and her one-upping her opponents never gets old. She is no-nonsense and blunt, and her efficiency is admirable and highly entertaining. Gilpin is a surprise in badass mode, but she makes it her own with style. A late Act Three fight is brutal as it goes from room to room, smashing everything in sight. It goes on for so long that the fighters start to get fatigued, pleasantly reminding me of the excellent fight choreography of 2017’s Atomic Blonde. It’s a satisfying final confrontation and doesn’t find a contrived way to hold back her formidable ability.

106072660-1565465049545the-hunt-gal-1-5d407ec97db7c-1croppedThe Hunt might have been cursed with bad luck but it also might have the distinction of being the last new movie in theaters in what is proving to be an increasingly challenged year of content delivery. It’s certainly not going to be a film for everyone despite its aim at centrism. I was entertaining by the script’s constant knack for surprises and upending my expectations, of laying out dominoes and then laying waste to said dominoes. Gilpin is a star in the making and a terrific lead. It’s a movie that can get people talking by the end, debating its satirical messages, but it can also just be a fun, nasty little movie that will make you hoot in delight with each violent twist. I’m glad The Hunt could finally be judged on its own merits rather than the presuppositions of others. There might be a lesson in there somewhere.

Nate’s Grade: B

Brahms: The Boy II (2020)

I mostly enjoyed the creepy thrills of 2016’s The Boy, where a young woman is hired by a wealthy old couple to watch their son who just happens to be a doll named Brahms who may or may not be alive. It built an atmosphere with patience until the very end where it definitively revealed the doll was not alive at all. Zoom ahead several years and now we have the awkwardly titled Brahms: The Boy II (why? why is the sequel status slated for the subtitle?) and it completely negates the previous movie. Surprise, that doll that was only a doll in the first movie is now a real supernatural presence who infects others and can move on its own. I don’t consider this a significant spoiler merely because returning director William Brent Bell (The Devil Inside) tips his hand so early into the movie’s 86 minutes. Because you know the doll is definitely alive now the rest of the movie becomes a tedious game of waiting for the adults to finally catch on, which makes the viewer impatient and also saps the dread out of scenes. This is the first movie I can recall where a person screams in front of a stationary doll and it’s treated like a jump scare. Katie Holmes (Logan Lucky) does her best as the matriarch of a family suffering some serious psychological trauma after being the victims of a home invasion. She and her husband see the Brahms doll as a working conduit for their son to better process his trauma. He’s even begun talking again, and also supposedly drawing very murderous pictures and saying how Brahms is angry. There’s an interesting story somewhere in here about a family using a creepy doll as an unorthodox means of PTSD therapy, but The Boy II is just such a lackluster horror movie. We know the doll is alive yet all the things we’re supposed to worry about are absent the doll’s immediate vicinity. Even as it gets more and more blatant, including a finale that reveals what Brahms looks like behind his mask (did you even think there was a “behind”?), the movie fails to make you care about anything that’s happening. It’s sluggish, silly, and stale. Even if you were a marginal fan of the first one, I would advise skipping Brahms. I wonder if there will be a The Boy III that completely undoes the sequel, the Rise of Skywalker to The Boy II‘s Last Jedi. Never thought I’d write that sentence.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Invisible Man (2020)

Does everyone remember the Dark Universe, the attempted relaunch of classic Universal monsters that were going to be played by the likes of Javier Bardem, Angelina Jolie, and Johnny Depp? It’s okay if you do not, though the stars got paid regardless. It was all going to be kicked off with Tom Cruise in 2017’s The Mummy, and one under-performing movie later the entire cinematic universe was discarded by spooked studio bosses. But IP will only stay dormant for so long, and so we have a new attempt to relaunch the same horror figures that first terrified audiences almost 90 years ago. Writer/director Leigh Whannell has a long career in genre filmmaking, having started the Saw and Insidious franchises with James Wan, but it was 2018’s bloody action indie Upgrade that really showed what he could do as a director. He was tapped by powerhouse studio Blumhouse to breathe life into those dusty old monsters, going the route of lower budget genre horror rather than blockbuster action spectacles. The Invisible Man is an immediately gripping movie, excellent in its craft, and proof Whannell should be given the remaining monsters to shepherd.

Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) has recently run away from her long-time abusive boyfriend, Adrian (House on Haunted Hill’s Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Just as she’s taking comfort in friends and her sister, Adrian takes his own life and lists Cecilia as the sole beneficiary, but there’s a catch. She must undergo a psych evaluation and be cleared. Cecilia is ready to move on with her life and start over but she can’t shake the feeling that Adrian might not be dead after all and is still watching her.

Whannell has grown as a genre filmmaker and has delivered a scary movie that is confident, crafty, and jarringly effective. From the intense opening sequence, I was generally riveted from start to finish. The shots that Whannell chooses to communicate geography and distance so effectively allow the audience to simmer in the tension of the moment. Whannell’s visual compositions are clean and smart. Another sign how well he builds an atmosphere of unease is that I began to dread the empty space in the camera frame. Could there be an invisible man hiding somewhere? Could some small visual movement tip off the presence of the attacker? Much like A Quiet Place taught an audience to fear the faintest of noise, The Invisible Man teaches its audience to fear open space. It places the viewer in the same anxious, paranoid headspace as Cecilia. It’s also a very economical decision for a horror filmmaker, training your audience to fear what they don’t see. And there is a lot more in a movie that is not seen. The suspense set pieces are so well drawn and varied yet they all follow that old school horror model of establishing the setting, the rules, and just winding things up and letting them go, squeezing the moment for maximum anxiety. It’s reminiscent of the finer points of another old school horror homage, The Conjuring franchise. At its most elemental, horror is the dread of what will happen next to characters we care about, and The Invisible Man succeeds wildly by placing an engaging character in shrewdly designed traps.

I jumped even during its jump scares and that happens so rarely for me. The jump scares don’t feel cheap either, which is even more impressive. They’re clever little visual bursts of sudden spooks, and they feel just as well developed as the other scary set pieces, complimenting the nervous tension and compounding it rather than detracting. There is one moment that happens so fast, that is so unexpected, that I was literally blinking for several seconds trying to determine if what I was watching was actually transpiring. It was so shocking that I was trying to keep up, and yet, like the other decisions, it didn’t feel cheap. I’m convinced this one “ohmygod” buzz-worthy moment will go down in modern horror history, being discussed in the same vein as the speeding bus in the first Final Destination film. I have this level of praise even for the jump scares.

The movie doesn’t soft-pedal the abuse that Cecilia endures, nor does it exploit her pain and suffering for tacky thrills. This is a socially relevant reinterpretation of the source material. The movie examines toxic masculinity and gaslighting but with a supernatural sci-fi spin, but it never loses the grounding in the relatable plight of its protagonist. Cecilia is a character that has suffered trauma that she cannot fully even process, so that even when she’s on her own, she’s still discovering the depth of how exactly this very bad man has reshaped her perception and fears. We don’t need to see Adrian explicitly abuse Cecilia to understand the impact of his toxic relationship. Within minutes, Whannell has already told us enough with how terrified and cautious she is when making her late-night escape from the bed of her sleeping monster. Her all-consuming fear is enough to fill us in. This is a woman who is taking a big risk because she feels her life depends upon it. Later, nobody believes her fantastic claims about her ex still haunting her and posing a threat, convincing her it’s all in her head, and some of them questioning whether the abuse was made up as well. The correlations with domestic violence and gaslighting are obvious, yes, but this dramatic territory is given knowing sympathy and consideration from Whannell. It’s not something tacked on simply to feel bad for our heroine, or to feel relevant with headlines of monstrous man accounting for years of monstrous actions preying upon women. It’s a complete reinvention of a classic to suit our times as well as taking advantage of what that classic source offers. This is how you can adapt stories we’ve seen dozens of times to feel fresh.

Much of the film rests upon Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) and she is truly fantastic. We’re living in an exciting new era where horror movies have reclaimed their social relevance, and they are providing talented actresses to unleash Oscar-caliber performances (Florence Pugh in Midsommar, Lupita Nyong’o in Us, Toni Collette in Hereditary, Ana Taylor-Joy in The Witch). The role requires Moss to demonstrate much through a series of emotional breakdowns. It’s not just getting glassy-eyed and looking scared. Cecilia is a survivor struggling to regain her security while also being heard, and her breaking points of sanity and desperation cannot be one-note. Moss is no stranger to enduring the indignity of condescending men from her TV roles, and she was beautifully unhinged in a memorable moment from Us. She’s the perfect actress to take Whannell’s character and give credence to her vulnerability, uncertainty, and inner strength.

The movie isn’t perfect but it accomplishes a clear majority of its artistic aims with confidence and style. It’s too long at over two hours. I’m glad Whannell doesn’t waste too much time whether or not Cecilia believes her bad man has gone invisible. The supporting characters are a bit underwritten and utilized primarily as Sympathetic Figures Turning to Concerned Figures and then as Potential Targets. This extends to the relationship between Adrian and his brother (Michael Dorman). There has to be more that could have been explored there, especially as it relates to Cecilia. The musical score is heavy on loud, ominous tones and rumbling interference. The special effects are sparingly used, and the invisible suit was initially a design that made me shake my head. In practice, it actually looks pretty interesting and threatening. There is one misstep that feels glaring. Before the end of the movie, there have been a few “hey what about… ?” instances, but they were easy to put out of mind. Whannell drops one major announcement late in the movie but seems to gloss over the extra leverage it provides Cecilia, and her inability to capitalize on this turn of events seems odd considering her antipathy for her attacker as well as the weakness that she can exploit.

As I walked out of my screening for The Invisible Man, I kept reviewing just how many different moments, elements, sequences, and choices added up to a thoroughly suspenseful, satisfying, and entertaining trip at the movies. Whannell has a natural feel for genre horror as well as how to treat it in an elevated manner where it can say real things about real issues while also doing a real good job of making you really anxious. Intense from the first moment onward, this is a streamlined, finely honed horror movie for our modern age. Even the jump scares work! This is already turning into a promising year for indie horror, and The Invisible Man is the first great film of the new year and the new decade.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Lodge (2020)

The Lodge is a patient, methodical, and unsettling horror movie that establishes an eerie atmosphere, pushes the viewer to question what is going on, and then, upon finally revealing its last secret, sits back and lets the real horror play out to sickening effect. This is from the same writing/directing team behind 2014’s Goodnight Mommy, and you’ll start to wonder whether or not Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz really dislike children. The movie had me on edge early with a sudden jolt of violence, and I felt uneasy from there to the bleak ending. It’s about a father (Richard Armitage) taking his two children for a holiday retreat with his new girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keough), the person the kids blame for breaking up their parents’ marriage. She wants to get to know them and bond but the kids are having none of that. To make matters worse, the kids discover that Grace is the lone survivor of a religious suicide cult. Once at the family lodge in the snowy woods, strange events and messages torment Grace and the kids until they question where they are, what may have happened to them, and if there is an escape. The first act is the family in the wake of trauma and the children viewing Grace as the interloper worthy of their scorn. The second act becomes an existential horror movie that questions whether there has been a shift into the supernatural or divine. The last act reveals what’s really been going on and it’s the consequences of bad choices. The ending trajectory feels fated from the earlier setups, so when everything is falling apart, the danger feels incredibly real. I was so anxious during the ending sequences that I was holding my breath and covering my face. I didn’t know how far this movie would go, and while it pulls back at the very end, the implications are clear even if they aren’t explicit onscreen. Keough (Logan Lucky) plays a character with real depth as a woman trying to reclaim her life from deep-seated trauma, and when events spin out of control, that trauma resurfaces and starts to take over her thinking, placing her on autopilot, which then pushes the film into the realm of tragedy. She’s fabulous and impressively restrained as her character mines layers of self-doubt, bone-deep teachings, and shock. The atmosphere of the film is very fitting for the setting, chilly and isolated and dread-filled. The camera movements are often very deliberate to draw out tension and uncertainty. It all comes together for a very creepy little movie that gets under your skin. The Lodge is not going to be an audience-friendly outing due to its pacing and ending, but consider it an A24 horror film that somehow got away under a different studio.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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