Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey (2023)
The surprise horror movie Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey is likely a preview of what’s to come when well-known stories and characters fall under the public domain. However, the cheerful Pooh that most people recall is from the Disney animated shorts and films which began in 1966 and still fall under current copyright laws. So if you were gonna make a killer Pooh bear, he better resemble author A.A. Milne’s original creation and not the Disney version or else you’ll incur the wrath of the many lawyers of the Mouse House. In writer/director Rhys Frake-Waterfield’s version, Pooh and Piglet are on a killing spree after their dear Christopher Robin (Nikolai Leon) grows up and abandons them (they ate poor Eeyore). However, most of the movie is about thick-bodied malevolent men in masks preying upon young British women who are regularly in their underwear or bathing suits. To say this movie is creatively lacking is an understatement. Blood and Honey isn’t just a bad B-movie, it gives a bad name to enjoyably bad B-movies.
The only reason this movie exists is for the novelty of its existence, so that younger horror fans, and those with a healthy appreciation of irony and bad movies, can say, “I watched a killer Winnie the Pooh movie.” No other thought was given to this entire enterprise after that first one. The intellectual property fell into the public domain and now the filmmakers are scooping it up for a cheap and easy, “Well, I haven’t ever seen [wholesome or kid-friendly character] behave like that,” and “that” being blood-thirsty and cannibalistic. I am not against the very idea of this movie, but Frake-Waterfield puts no subversive connections to anything happening. It’s just a low-rent slasher movie with British coeds being knocked off by a guy in a bear mask and a guy in a pig mask. The characters could have been renamed as anything and the movie would have had the same impact. For that matter, the masks could have been swapped with, oh let’s say, a mask of Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Then we could come up with some half-baked explanation of Nixon and Ford reawakening from the dead and seeking to kill the youth vote to better ensure Republican candidates win elections. It would make just as much sense as anything else. The characters of Pooh and Piglet are not in any way reflected upon or given distinct personality or any connections to their non-killer interpretations. In the opening narration, we’re told that the vengeful animals of the 100 Acre Wood swore to conveniently never speak again and to revert back to their base nature. Fine, but then why is Winnie the Pooh still wearing human clothes? Why are they using tools? Why are they walking on two legs (four legs good, two legs bad)? And, most inexplicably, when did Pooh learn how to drive a car? There’s an onscreen kill where Piglet positions a captured woman in the path of a car tire, and it seems torturously convoluted for “killer animals reverted to being animals.” The entire enterprise lacks any subversive connection to the characters and story it’s intending to upend, and the whole movie feels creatively void.
Here’s another example of how little thought was put into this movie beyond getting it to completion. The main character has a past trauma of being molested by a man who was stalking her and broke into her home. For our own edification, this scene is played visually for us, with the intruder taking their time to slowly pull down the strap of our sleeping protagonist’s shirt. So we have a past trauma and the character is now experiencing a new trauma, so from a writing standpoint, you would expect this horrible situation would be a way for the character to exorcise her trauma in a very extreme circumstance and there would even be a parallel for her to triumph over as a rudimentary character arc. It would, at the very least, provide a story justification for why our main character has endured her suffering, so as to work through that as her arc. Well, none of that seems to matter, nor are there any pertinent parallels, and so her past of having a creep break into her home, hover over her asleep, and touch her body was just prurient exploitation. Look, I understand the horror genre is built upon its tried-and-true exploitation elements, boobs and blood and the like. That’s what the audience for a killer Pooh movie comes to expect. I understand why Pooh is ripping the top off one woman before slamming her head into a meat grinder, though it still made me feel icky and sad, but that’s my central response. I did a lot of exasperated sighing and shaking of my head throughout the bloated 80 minutes of movie. After a slightly eerie and decently animated opening, this movie is creatively bankrupt on all fronts.
Winnie the Pooh and Piglet and the rest of the population of the 100 Acre Wood are products of Christopher Robin’s imagination, so him leaving them is more him moving on from his childhood enchantments rather than abandoning his friends. I guess this movie’s version chooses for them to have really existed, which raises some questions over what these creatures were doing before they ever met Christopher Robin. Were they animals and then Christopher Robin’s love and attention magically transformed them into anthropomorphic creatures? If so, then this little boy’s imagination has an amazing power to tap into. Although, to be fair, Disney itself made a 2018 movie with an adult Christopher Robin (Ewen McGregor) who was being followed by the stubborn animals of the 100 Acre Wood who sought him out to remind him about the power of friendships and belief that, I assume, he seemed to have lost track of as a jaded adult.
Taking a look at the larger filmography of Frake-Waterfield, a devious pattern starts to emerge. The movies are built on title and concept, and there sure are a lot to choose from. As a producer, he has 21 movies released all since 2021 and another 14 in the works, including a sequel to Blood and Honey. Here, dear reader, are some of the titles of the past and future Frake-Waterfield productions: Dinosaur Hotel, The Legend of Jack and Jill, Spider in the Attic, Easter Killing, Wrath of Van Helsing, Croc!, Kingdom of the Dinosaurs, Curse of Jack Frost, The Killing Tree (about a murderous Christmas tree), Firenado, Monsternado, Bambi: The Reckoning, Mary Had a Little Lamb, Peter Pan’s Neverland Nightmare, Crocodile Swarm, Dinosaur Prison, and Snake Hotel. It almost plays out like a B-movie Mad Libs exercise. Take an animal people fear (snakes, crocodiles, dinosaurs) add a place (hotels especially, though is Snake Hotel a lodging intended for people who love snakes or for the snakes themselves?) and, when in doubt, swipe some public domain IP that has an innocent or more wholesome reputation and switch it up (Steamboat Willie put as a sex trafficker?). I’m not against schlocky low-budget horror movies that are acutely aware of their schlock. The killer Christmas tree movie actually seems ridiculous enough to be fun. Except, having seen Blood and Honey, I’m dubious that any of these will actually take advantage of their goofy concepts.
Even if you were turning into Blood and Honey for the ironic yuks, there’s nothing to really laugh at here. This is a bad movie rather than an enjoyably bad movie. It’s a movie that only exists because somebody thought enough people would be curious to watch a killer Winnie the Pooh movie. That’s the reason I tuned in, but from the second minute onward, there’s no reason to bother watching the remaining mess. Just imagine a low-rent slasher film with unimaginative kills, boring characters, a lack of any subversive connections or reframing of its source material, and an ending that doesn’t so much conclude but simply give up for a sequel, and you’ll have replicated Blood and Honey. As one saving grace, I will say that the movie has more polished cinematography than most of its low-budget ilk. The startling lack of imagination of everything else is depressing, as is the fact that this movie has earned over four million at the global box-office, hoodwinking enough rubberneckers looking for a good bad time. The problem is that Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey is only a bad bad time.
Nate’s Grade: D-
Free to a Bad Home (2023)
Last year, I was approached by HaleHouse Productions, a company led by the Ohio filmmaking and brotherly duo of Kameron and Scott Hale, to review their first feature, Entropy. It was a small indie shot with a bunch of friends over the course of the COVID-19 lockdown, and I appreciated the artistic aptitude of ganging together during such trying times, but ultimately I found the movie’s flaws to be too overwhelming. I was slightly surprised when HaleHouse reached out to me a year later and solicited another review for their next horror movie, Free to a Bad Home. After all, I had been critical about their earlier film, but they said they appreciate reading the reviews, and this has always been my aim when I write these critiques for Ohio-made indies, to try and provide a professional review with clear and coherent constructive criticism and earned praise. So I figured why not, and I watched Free to a Bad Home, and now I’m wondering if HaleHouse is still going to seek out my opinion when it comes time for movie number three.
I was happy that the Hale brothers (credited as both writers and directors) took the anthology route because, greedily, it means more stories to be told, and it also conveniently allows the audience to leap to another story if the current one wasn’t exactly firing. It’s a numbers game: rather than hoping for one story to entertain, now we have three shorter stories to hopefully engage and entertain. However, the needs of telling a short are still very similar to that of a feature-length screenplay; you still need interesting characters, you still need a story with a beginning, middle, and end, and you still need to use your time wisely, whether it’s a five-minute story or a two-hour one. While Free to a Bad Home divides its time between three smaller tales, and one perfunctory wraparound, I can’t say the movie still knows what to do with its 80 minutes (divided by three). Any horror movie needs adequate time to establish mood. There are plenty of movies that are nothing but a mood piece, like David Lynch or the recent indie breakout Skinamarink, where the intent to present an experience that detaches the audience from the known and places them into a limbic middle zone of uncertainty and dread. Storytellers are going to need some time to establish the main characters, their dilemmas, the setting, and where and when things are going peculiar or wrong. Watching Free to a Bad Home, it felt like each segment had an idea but left it frustratingly vague and with regrettably little development to carry it.
Ignoring the wraparound, the first segment is about Amy (Miranda Neiman) overcoming loss while visiting her old home. She spends a lot of time walking around, hearing strange noises, and getting lost through drinking. Her sister comes around too. It lasts around twenty minutes and much of it hinges upon the very ending twist, which explains what happened to her husband and why it is weighing so heavily on Amy. Except the preceding twenty minutes doesn’t feel like we’re getting more intrigue or insights into Amy or even her fraying psychology. She’s seeing weird visions of a guy in bed sheets and a strange sinkhole in the woods, but a lot of the running time is sitting and waiting. We understand she’s in some stage of mourning. This isn’t really further developed after being established, and that’s the issue with many of the segments. It’s an idea, and there’s a conclusion that is generally predictable, but we’re missing the middle. You could include the first three minutes, the last three minutes, and cut out the in-between, and the “Amy” segment would play out the exact same way. The problem is that the end is too obvious to simply keep the character in a holding pattern for so long with only minimal action. The character is very much sitting around and waiting, and so are we for too long. It’s structured like a haunted house story where a woman is coming undone. Except we don’t get better insights into this person over time, nor do we get increasingly scary haunting or her unraveling mental stability.
The second segment follows Ryan (Jake C. Young) breaking into a home and taking just the most absolutely leisurely time looking for anything of value. We spend nearly ten minutes just watching this guy walk into a room, look around, and then leave to go search in another room. I think the drawn out time is meant to heighten the vulnerability of our thief, making the audience worry that he’s spending too long and is more likely to get caught. First of all, that requires me to find this character likable or interesting to care if he avoids exposure and arrest. This could happen if somehow during these ten minutes we’re learning about dear old Ryan. Maybe we see his problem-solving skills, maybe he gets an inopportune call that he tries to get out of but reveals his own status of financial insecurity, and maybe he even encounters evidence of the family that lives here and makes comment, like he’s a disgruntled employee trying to take what he feels is deserved from a wealthy executive. Anything other than watching one guy walk into several rooms and look around for valuables. At long last he finds something unexpected, a woman named Camilla (Roni Locke) chained to a mattress. Rather than pretend to be a traumatized victim of trafficking, which would be the easy assumption, this woman declares herself a demon who will help Ryan open the family’s expensive safe. However, if he were to release her, she promises to kill the family next door. Do we know anything about them? No, not really, but the devil’s bargain is established: personal gain for the death of strangers. Once again, the ending seems obvious given the lack of substantial character development. The hook is the offer from the evil entity and the cost of his own selfishness, but this hook is diminished when we don’t exactly get any personal struggle wrestling with the decision or its horrific outcome.
The final segment is the longest, nearly half the total running time, and we follow Julia (Olivia Denis) who is going with her older sister and her friends to a Halloween party. There’s the start of something here with a younger sibling eager to grow up and hang out with older peers, with the drawback of getting into trouble in the pursuit of being seen as cool. Except none of the four characters we follow to the party really distinguish themselves as people. We spend more time watching them do acid in the car, slowly, than we do anything else. It’s a full ten minutes of watching ladies drop drugs into their eyes while moody neon lighting bathes their skin and the synth score rings. We’re clearly going for an immersive mood here but the drug usage, so heavily covered, isn’t ever conveyed in plot or perspective. When the characters arrive at their party, we don’t see any hallucinations or hear anything amiss, which could have been more visually interesting as well as ratchet up tension that things are unwell. Instead, the ladies attend a very sparsely attended gathering where they unveil a smiling corpse and then take turns projectile vomiting onto the body. Then the women are chased and easily dispatched. The end.
So what do all the story segments have in common? There’s plenty of idle waiting. There’s a real dearth of characterization outside whatever the initial premise might afford. There are specific stylistic fixations that are often to the detriment of pacing and story, like the low-light investigation of Ryan and the trance-like neon dream of the ladies tripping on eye drops. There are also obvious endings that don’t feel any better realized or subverted or better set up. Every anthology collection is going to be a mixed bag depending upon your personal tastes, but there’s a certain safety in numbers. I didn’t love all 26 segments on 2012’s The ABCs of Death but there were enough that tickled my fancy, likewise with the many V/H/S collections. However, each of the three anthology tales in Free to a Bad Home suffers from simply not having enough to do.
There are concepts here that can work. The idea of an anthology movie following a cursed object is a fine starting point, almost like the horror equivalent of 1999’s The Red Violin, an underrated indie that traced the adventures of a special violin through centuries of owners. The idea of a criminal coming across a caged demon who tempts them with a Faustian bargain is good. The setup of a younger sibling wanting validation and tagging along for something they are unprepared for, that’s a strong starting point for a night of unexpected terror. A woman alone in her old home and haunted by her memories is a familiar but potent starting point for horror. These core ideas can work but not one is given substantial development to make them matter.
If you wanted to trace the lineage of a cursed object, I think it would have been more creatively fulfilling to tell your stories in distinctly different time periods, highlighting shifting values but also the different appeals this haunted object might have had depending upon the times. Imagine a woman coming across a cursed piece of jewelry in 1890 or 1950 versus modern-day. There’s nothing in any of the three stories that ties them to a specific time period, so why not venture into other times to give a larger sense of history and the ramifications of this curse? As a low-budget indie, I understand the production reasons why the three stories are all contemporary, though the movie opens with a quick succession of suicide and murder in two earlier time periods. Creatively, the movie feels too easily satisfied and needed to push its ideas and horror further. As it stands, Free to a Bad Home feels like a collection of disappointing shorts rather than one single story disappointment, which oddly enough makes the movie feel even more disappointing.
For being a small indie Ohio production, there are some impressive artistic values. The cinematography by William E. Newton (Black Wolf) can be occasionally entrancing, like during the drug-addled driving sequence that is a little too in love with its protracted mood. The practical makeup effects are sparing but can be unsettling and effective, most notably during a coda where a woman picks at a very open wound on her face and works it to disgusting lengths.
Free to a Bad Home doesn’t separate itself from the glut of cheap horror movies with half-formed stories. Rather than squandering one story over the course of 80 padded minutes, now it’s squandering three-ish stories over the course of 80 padded minutes. I’m a little surprised there isn’t more horror as well, whether that’s conventional exploitation elements like gore and sex, or simply just constructed and sustained sequences of terror and dread. For genre fans with a love for DIY indie spirit, there may be some entertainment to be had with Free to a Bad Home. You can tell the Hale brothers and their small crew have their passions for the material. I only wish more scrutiny and perhaps outside assistance in the writing and development of future tales to make the most of the potential. Free to a Bad Home is available on Tubi and other streaming services, making the title even more apt. For me, there was just too little going on creatively to maintain my ongoing interest and waning attention.
Nate’s Grade: D+
It’s early January, typically a dumping ground for the unwanted leftovers of Hollywood studios, but an unexpected meme queen has emerged in the form of M3GAN. The latest hit from Blumhouse is styled as a horror-comedy and from the same writer as 2021’s Malignant, which was a delightfully gonzo horror movie that only got more absurdly entertaining the crazier it went. My hopes for M3GAN were confirmed early as I laughed within seconds of the movie. There isn’t much in the way of genuine scares as a PG-13 chiller, so M3GAN leans into the knowingly awkward camp comedy. An advanced robot is given to an orphan to test-drive and the little robot forms a strong attachment that cannot be broken even by bloodshed. It’s a crazy killer doll movie combined with a crazy killer robot movie as well as a corporate satire. When the little robot literally bursts out into song to help cheer up her human counterpart, there’s nothing to do but laugh and acknowledge this is what the filmmakers wanted in response. It’s a fun movie that doesn’t overstay its welcome but needed a little more crazy or a little more biting satire to really satisfy. I was hoping for a more Malignant-style escalation of crazy and was left wanting. Still, it’s a goofy horror comedy that just wants to have fun with the uncanny valley of your expectations.
Nate’s Grade: B
Before going any further, let me acknowledge that this movie was, in all likelihood, never going to be my thing, so take everything I write next with caution and context. Skinamarink is the latest indie horror sensation and it’s easy to root for. It was made for a pittance, roughly $15,000, and filmed entirely in writer/director Kyle Edward Ball’s family home in Edmonton, Canada, and after being accidentally leaked online in its entirety in late 2022, the movie became a stalwart of TikTok and the talk of indie horror fans, enough so that it earned a nationwide theatrical release based upon its word-of-mouth buzz. This guy had an idea, shot it himself and for extremely little, and now horror fans across the country can gather and watch this man’s efforts. That’s commendable. Ball is living out a filmmaker’s dream, and I congratulate the man on being able to conceive a micro-horror concept that could connect with so many eager horror fans. I hope he rides this wave and is able to make even more movies while still holding to his creative terms. However, Skinamarink was too experimental an experience for me. It’s like having someone describe their nightmare for you in tedious, clinical detail when you’d really like to do anything else. I kept waiting and waiting for anything to materialize. I was just left waiting and bored.
This is less of a plot or character-driven movie and more one of those horror movies meant to exist on a subconscious dream logic parallel, tapping into something primal. The environment is very limited. We’re stuck inside a home at night for the entire duration of the movie, ostensibly following or adopting the perspectives of two children who wake up in the middle of the night. Something is wrong with their parents, and it sure sounds like there’s another more sinister presence in the home preying upon all of them. We hear noises coming from just out of reach. We see feet and heads but never the faces of people. An old TV continuously blares public domain cartoons that echo through the home. There are some Legos on the floor. Sometimes the doors and windows, and even a toilet, will disappear. Nobody tries to use a phone or leave the house. I was hoping over the 100 minutes that some grander design would reveal itself. Alas, if it did reveal itself, my patience had already been exhausted and so was my brain trying to make sense.
This kind of minimalist tone poem movie is just not for me. I was hopeful that eventually the different mysterious pieces might start forming a more cogent picture of what was happening, or even an understanding of the new rules within this enclosed nightmare universe, but it never materialized. Because nothing really adds up with Skinamarink you could have rearranged any scene without having a deleterious effect. There is no structure, no discovery, nothing to warrant this movie being 100 minutes when ten would have given the same artistic impression. It feels like one of those movies that someone else would watch in another movie that was cursed, a la The Ring. Imagine watching the strange imagery of The Ring cursed video but for two hours. Wouldn’t that grow tiresome? There were some moments that unnerved me, like a rare extended scene of dad imploring the child to look under the bed, and the occasional non-sequitur hushed morsel of dialogue that can creep you out (“That’s why I took her mouth away”). I feel like the entire movie is a giant ASMR experience and would be best watched alone, in the dead of night, and with headphones on for a fully immersive sound design. The movie’s lo-fi style applies to its soundtrack as well, which is constant with hisses and pops like an old record. It’s effective but, like everything else in the movie, becomes less effective or interesting upon its excessive repetition.
I was reminded of Terrence Malick, another filmmaker whose artistic output doesn’t appeal to me. As I wrote for 2005’s The New World: “[Malick] doesn’t so much involve a plot as he does a large open space for his characters to pontificate about the world around them, mostly through whispery voice over. Malick fans will take in his artistic capture of sight and sound, but the rest of us out there will be scratching our heads, that is, when we’re not falling asleep. Seriously, how do you edit something like this? How does Malick know that THIS shot of a tree blowing in the wind needs to be slotted here, while this OTHER shot of a tree blowing in the wind needs to definitely come later? Malick is a stubborn mystery.” I kept thinking these exact same critical thoughts throughout Skinamarink: how does one even approach editing a movie like this? How do you put this shot of a door at minute 43 but reserve this other shot of a door for minute 56? Because the movie doesn’t build or alter its approach, it feels punishingly monotonous. We’re seeing the same rooms from the same angles, the same TV, the same Legos, and the occasional whisper or growl of dialogue. I guess the repetition could contribute to a growing sense of dread or an inability to escape, and for some I’m sure the movie had that effect. For me, I couldn’t connect on its liminal wavelength.
I think the filmmaker was reasonably trying to recreate a relatable childish nightmare, waking up and sensing something is wrong, the adults cannot help you, or are missing themselves, and there’s no escape to be had as you try to wake up. The lo-fi inventiveness on a very limited budget is admirable, but for me, it would have been just as effective as a clips package. Actually, the entire movie is a glorified clips package, because one scene rarely if ever connects to the following scene, or one shot connecting to the next consecutive shot, so it feels like an endless fuzzy loop. I watched one of Ball’s videos on his YouTube channel, a resource that proved to be his inspiration for the movie, and it was a one-minute short labeled as a nightmare and it consisted of opening one door and pushing inside only to be met with another door, and then the whole thing repeats for a full minute. The point is easy enough to grasp, the futility and helplessness, and even at a minute in length, the video is pushing the bounds of its thin concept to a breaking point. I feel like Skinamarink is the same thing, a concept pushed beyond its breaking point without additional intrigue or substance. I congratulate Kyle Edward Ball and his minimal crew for making a shoestring budget horror hit. It’s just too experimental and lacking narrative traction and substance to be a hit with me.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Smile was not initially intended for a theatrical release. The $17 million-budgeted horror thriller had been intended as a streaming exclusive for Paramount Plus, but after the movie tested so well, its parent company thought why not try a theatrical run? They even hired real actors to creepy stand still grinning outside Good Morning America or behind home plate for baseball playoffs. Then the movie made over $200 million worldwide and possibly began its own franchise. Not bad. After having finally watched Smile, I can understand why it became a word-of-mouth sensation. It’s thoroughly unnerving and a horror film that just knows its fundamentals.
Dr. Rose Cutter (Sosie Bacon) is a clinical psychologist with her own trauma. As a child, she discovered her own mentally ill mother’s body after she had overdosed on pills, and this has spurned Rose to try and help others suffering from depression and mental illness as a career. She encounters one very frantic young woman, Laura (Caitlin Stasey), who fears she is in danger. She says she keeps seeing… smiling people, people that aren’t there, and she was told today was her last day to live. Sure enough, the woman struggles and then stands, eerily smiling, and casually slices her own throat in front of Rose. While she tries to shake off the disturbing burst of violence, Rose is starting to see Laura again, smiling that same eerie smile, and this propels Rose to investigate the origins of this curse that leads each victim to take their own life.
There isn’t much in the way of deeper themes or social commentary here, though I suppose you could find some pieces about how we stigmatize mental illness or that the curse has to be spread through witnesses of trauma. Smile isn’t an example of elevated horror and instead it’s just a well-constructed, well-developed horror movie that knows what to do to properly get under your skin. The premise reminded me of the indie breakout in 2014, It Follows, where there is a curse with very specific rules for passing it along, and new chains can be created or broken depending upon the duplicity of the person (see also: The Ring). I liked thinking of the curse as a puzzle, and my wife was able to jump to a conclusion before the movie as far as how to possibly break the curse, going against the assumptions of Rose and her ex-boyfriend police detective, Joel (Kyle Gallner). Much of the second half of the movie is this discovery period, untangling the longer history of the curse, implicit with this is that each new occurrence involved a violent suicide and an observer. I suppose maybe there is some theme possibly attempted about the shared nature of trauma, how it unpredictably spills out before us and is tricky to be cleanly contained. After establishing the pattern with the curse, now it’s time for our protagonist to wonder if she can beat the odds. I appreciate that writer/director Parker Finn provides plausibility to make her efforts credible. My issue with the latter part of It Follows was why the beleaguered teens would have thought that they could electrocute an invisible phantom and kill it when it was otherwise unfazed by bullets.
As a straightforward horror thriller, Smile knows what it takes to make you squirm and jump. It taps into something universal: smiling, without careful context, is often very creepy. It’s not a world-breaking observation and yet its simplicity is part of what makes it all so effective. Very often, the movie will anticipate the audience’s dread, feeling out that something is about to go off the rails or a jump scare might be approaching, and it will deliver in a different direction. Much like James Wan’s Conjuring movies, the film also has a firm handle on setups and payoffs, establishing a situation and then letting the audience simmer in dread. There was one moment where Rose was instructed to turn around and look behind her by a voice that no longer seemed so helpful, and the drawn-out response was deliciously squirm-inducing. There was another moment that I knew a jump scare was coming, it was literally walking towards Rose, and I kept thinking, “Okay, here comes the startle,” and then the movie brought it but in a way that still surprised and elated me. Given the nature of the curse messing with its victim’s mind, you might start to anticipate what Rose sees and hears is not to be trusted, and there are a few fake-outs too many. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t just rest on one spooky trick. There’s a children’s birthday party that manages to tie a few plot elements together in a masterfully traumatizing manner. When Smile does start revealing more about the design of its monster, that’s when my wife started averting her eyes more often and muttering “No no no” to herself. Some of the imagery is prime nightmare fuel, and I applaud Finn’s innate ability to scare the hell out of an audience.
Some action movies and horror flicks are best described as thrill rides, an experience that exhilarates and delights and doesn’t offer much more by the end than the experience, and that’s perfectly acceptable. Not every movie has to be one with deeper meanings or breaking the mold in a way that no filmmaker has ever achieved before. Sometimes just having a good time from a well-constructed thrill ride is sufficient for a fun and diverting viewing. Smile is that film, a horror/thriller that is cleverly focused and developed to garner every goosebump. I will also say that I incorrectly thought that this movie was PG-13, and that was quickly disproven by the intensity and disturbing nature of its violence. I can’t say why I always thought that this was a PG-13 movie, maybe because of its instant box-office success, but it definitely doesn’t soft pedal its intense atmosphere and disquieting nature. It takes a lot to scare me, and Smile made me sit on the edge of my seat and perfectly dread the next moment, that is, when I wasn’t averting my eyes like my wife and trying to forget its nightmarish imagery.
Nate’s Grade: B+
It’s rare for a movie to be truly surprising, which is why I would suggest if you’re unfamiliar with Barbarian to try and go in with as little advance knowledge as possible. This is a movie that delights in upending its audience and making them reconsider what they previously thought, re-examining characters and situations with new key pieces of evidence, swapping allegiances and sympathies. It begins ordinarily enough with a young woman, Tess (Georgina Campbell), arriving at her Air B&B rental with a mysterious stranger (Bill Skarsgard) already there claiming it’s his rental. He invites her inside, and she hesitates but follows, and from there the night will go down as one to remember, if she survives it. The joy of Barbarian is how it keeps changing its gears, leaving the audience guessing what could possibly happen next, and the movie will make some remarkable tone and time jumps. Writer/director Zach Cregger (part of the comedy troupe The Whitest Kids U’Know) has made a Jordan Peele-esque leap into the realm of horror with starting results. Cregger really knows his genre goods, and his camera will elegantly frame his visuals while letting the dread compound, as we nervously anticipate what’s to come, often the result of investigating something we know will only lead to bad ends. For a low-budget indie horror movie, the photography and production design work wonders at building suspense and unease. The lingering flaw of Barbarian is that it’s a surprise show, a haunted house ride that doesn’t have much more to it than the entertaining yet finite experience. I don’t think there’s much in the way of re-watchability and many of the plot and thematic elements feel too timidly explored, ladled on haphazardly when they could have earned far more attention, especially with the reveals in the second half. Still, if you’re looking for a delightfully unpredictable and squirm-inducing horror movie that delivers on the WTF moments, then Barbarian is ready for you, whether or not you’re ready for its many deranged detours.
Nate’s Grade: B
Halloween Ends (2022)
If you’re a fan of the hallowed Halloween horror series, I can understand why Halloween Ends can be a disappointment, since it dramatically steers away from the formula that has carried this franchise since its beginning. However, if you are like me and find Michael Myers to be one of the most boring slasher killers, and too much of the slasher genre to be rote and repetitive, then this movie might actually be something of a welcomed surprise. Ends might be the least Halloween movie since the third film, the failed 1982 sequel that tried to establish life outside of the hulking menace that is Myers, and then the series shortly retreated back to its familiar bloody formula. Ends might be the least amount of screen time Myers has ever had in any film in the franchise, excluding the third movie; he doesn’t even get his first kill until almost an hour in.
The 2018 reboot was a mixed bag of a horror movie but it ended on the strongest note, with three generations of Strode women fighting together to end their torment. Unfortunately, the series had to continue because the 2018 movie made so much money for the studio, so we’ve been given two rather perfunctory sequels. It’s clear director David Gordon Green and his co-screenwriters, including actor Danny McBride, didn’t really have a desire to continue, and so they spent the sequels exploring other avenues of Haddonfield. I wasn’t a fan of 2021’s Halloween Kills, but the subplot about the mob of scared citizens becoming vigilantes was at least something new and added to a larger understanding of the trauma of this terrorized community. I can say the same with Halloween Ends, namely that the things that were most unexpected and tertiarily related to Myers were what I enjoyed the most. Halloween Ends is messy and disjointed but at least it’s interesting even as it strains to justify its existence and even seems slightly disdainful as well.
It’s Halloween time again in Haddonfield and the citizens are still psychologically recovering from the events of the prior year, as featured in Halloween Kills. Nobody has seen Myers since he killed Laurie’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) adult daughter. In fact the Myers’ estate has been demolished, at long last, and the town is trying to move on from yet another massacre. Laurie is trying to transition into domestic territory, watching over her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) as she works at an urgent care center. The real star of the movie isn’t Laurie but Corey (Rohan Campbell), a teenager who accidentally killed a child he was babysitting years ago. Corey is a pariah in town as he tries to get his life back on track, with the meager options that Haddonfield offers for someone with his baggage. He is befriended by Laurie, who introduces the lad to Allyson, and the two instantly connect as outsiders unfairly maligned by their town. These star-crossed lovers get more complicated when Corey begins to tap into his darker impulses and discovers the location of a recuperating Michael Myers. How far will he go?
Because Myers is such a colossal bore as a character, so readily deemed pure evil as to remove anything remotely interesting, I was grateful that Halloween Ends chooses to be something else for most of its running time, precisely the evolution of a killer. Characters that are just born as soulless evil don’t require much in the way of understanding or back-story. This movie decides to spend the majority of its time setting up a protégé figure for the big bad boogeyman, so much so that you could cut the scant Myers appearances in his subterranean lair and make the first half of this a completely different movie. It’s proof that Green and his screenwriters weren’t just coasting from creative inertia of delivering the same-old same-old. There is an actual story here that wants to explore elements of the franchise that have been dormant and chronicle how a young man can fall onto a dark path and lose himself. It’s the appeal of the dark side, and it’s personified in one young man’s journey. It’s the serial killer origin structure, and it mostly works. I was far more interested in Corey than anything else happening in Ends. The prologue establishes him as misunderstood and an outcast, blamed for an accident that nobody seems to think was actually an accident. It’s about how the ailing town treats this young man and how he tries to reform after tragedy, only to be met with suspicion and resentment. Getting to know Corey’s limited world and watching him succumb to his darker impulses, it’s like a little side story that you never would have known existed in the larger Halloween universe so often dominated by the endlessly wheel-spinning Laurie vs. Michael drama. I’m not going to say that the screenplay was nuanced and populated with three-dimensional characters, and the pacing of Corey’s descent is indeed rushed, but I appreciated the efforts to try something different.
Another issue I have is that first-half Laurie and second-half Laurie feel like two totally different characters. This version of Laurie Strode feels like a completely different character from the prior two Halloween movies that shaped her as a grizzled, obsessive, survivalist loner. This version is making awkward meet-cute small talk in grocery stores and burning pies she’s determined that her granddaughter will eat because of nascent Strode family traditions. Who is this woman? I know some time has passed from the previous movie, but where is the response or lingering grief over the loss of her daughter, the same person she spent years preparing to defend herself against the return of Myers and then was killed by him anyway. For all the weight given to this passing, it feels like an afterthought and that is bizarre. It’s as if Laurie’s daughter never existed for all the impact that her murder has on this story. Once Corey and Allyson become a romantic pair, that’s when something clicks over with Laurie and she recognizes the danger this boy represents, and then she becomes the overly protective mother (granted, her instincts are correct, but the characterization is blah). There was potential to explore the continued strained relationship between the different generations, but Allyson mostly comes across as the naïve child who just wants to run away with her dreamy new broody boy. Had the characterization for Laurie and Allyson been more coherent, and meaningfully tied to the past events in the new trilogy, I think it would have better aided the aims of the Corey examination.
Say what you will about the Halloween series stretching things out over its two lesser sequels, but Green and company add a definitive end note to their title. The degree to which the movie seeks definitive closure is almost comical. It feels like Green is saying to the studio, “Okay, this time it’s really, really over. There is absolutely no coming back from this. That’s it.” This sequence of finality goes so many steps beyond confirming its ending that I began to chuckle to myself at the absurdity of the movie telling its audience that this is the serious end. We go beyond beating-a-dead-horse territory into making the dead horse into a vase that is then shattered, and then the pieces thrown into a fire, and then the ashes launched into space. Of course, all of this will depend on the box-office viability of the movie and whether or not its parent company wants to squeeze even more money from the 40-year franchise (maybe an H50 in 2028?). After all, picking and choosing specific sequels to eliminate from franchise canon has become more popular, as evidenced by the 2018 movie blinking every sequel out of existence for its timeline, so all of these would-be definitive events can just be erased as easily by another sequel. That’s the nature of popular horror: everybody dies but nobody ever stays dead for long.
As slasher thrillers go, there’s probably not enough going on here to appeal to your baser desires, as there is no real memorable or gruesome kill. As a character study, there’s not enough careful development and plotting to reward exploring an offshoot to this universe. It’s fascinating to me, at best a middling fan of the Halloween series, how this sequel seems to simply not care about being a Halloween sequel, hence the shelving of Myers for so long, as well as the inconsistent characterization of Laurie and lack of follow-through, and the shirking of extensive gore and terror. I loved the strange detail that the friend group that bullies Corey aren’t a group of roided-out jocks but… marching band geeks (granted, with unchecked privilege). I loved how the movie goes above and beyond to persuade its conclusive ending, even closing out on the “Ends” of the title. You can almost feel certain degrees of disdain that Green and company have to create this added content, a misshapen denouement to the better climax in 2018. I guess there’s nothing stopping anyone from pretending these sequels are non-canonical, and it’s likely only a matter of years before the studio does the exact same thing to reignite the series. Halloween Ends is a strange, frustrating sequel that struggles to be a Halloween movie, for better or worse.
Nate’s Grade: C
Within two movies, and most likely just with his first in 2017, Jordan Peele catapulted himself as a brand name in the world of horror. At this point, you’ll see a Peele horror movie sight unseen because you know what you’re getting is going to be a unique experience. There are plenty of modern horror directors that have built a rabid fandom, like Ari Aster or James Wan, but nobody seems to be given the same platform as Peele has earned at this juncture. The writer/director has become what M. Night Shyamalan used to exhibit, the director whose creative visions were each highly anticipated event movies. Nope is Peele’s first foray into science fiction territory and the results are messy, disturbing, and, at points, astounding.
The Haywood family ranch has been involved in the motion picture industry since its very beginning. One of the first film images, a black man astride a horse, was the great-great-great grandfather of Emerald (Keke Palmer) and Otis Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya). The brother and sister are trying to save the family ranch after the untimely and strange passing of their father (Keith David) who was felled by debris falling from the sky. Their neighbor, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), is spinning his notoriety as a child actor into a Western theme park attraction. Ricky’s claim to fame was being one of two survivors of a 1990s sitcom where the trained chimpanzee, who in the context of the show was his adopted sibling, snapped and went on a killing spree. Emerald and Otis Jr. begin to suspect that there is a real unidentified flying object hanging over their land, so they set out to capture living proof and become rich and famous. The alien, hiding in an unmoving cloud over the course of six months, has other plans and intends to assert its claim on the Haywood territory.
Peele is proving himself more and more as a major director of genre spectacle and vision. Each of his three directorial efforts will hit people differently; I think they’ve incrementally gotten a little sloppier in the writing department, but Peele is only growing stronger as a visual stylist and orchestrator of big screen spookery. There is a grandeur to the visual arrangements, owing as much to the expansive language of Westerns and the awe of early Steven Spielberg. I wish I had seen the movie in IMAX as Peele intended, since he went to all the trouble of planning specific sequences for the grand IMAX cameras. There are several moments that are jaw-dropping and stirring in horror and wonder. A literal rain of blood and viscera and expelled non-organic items is a striking image. Even the unnatural way that helpless people are thrown off the ground can be jolting and primal. There’s a claustrophobic interior sequence of desperate people that really conveys the terror of the doomed. A big addition to the eerie atmosphere is the brilliant sound design. The otherworldly-ness of the alien encounters is heightened by a really in-depth sound design that can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention. Even the sound of rain, and its distance, can be an indicator of the proximity of danger. There are also the distant sounds of horrible screams circling through the clouds high above, and it’s a deeply unsettling design trick that works every time. Even when the movie wasn’t quite as engaging from a narrative or thematic standpoint, Nope is always engaging on a simple delivery system of spectacle. The way Peele distributes his visual clues and keys, sometimes literally, always provides something for an audience to anticipate.
I was also starting to grow impatient from Peele’s coy narrative games. The plot moves in frustrating starts and stops, teasing an intriguing development or proffering a question and then skipping backwards, denying the viewer a sense of gathering momentum. There’s a toying sense of teasing out how far he can go before an audience gets too impatient and quits. Much of the first half also takes place during night or sequences of sustained darkness, which can definitely play into the the fear of what could be in those shadows, but it makes for a fitfully frustrating experience when you’re trying to unravel a science fiction mystery. I kept wondering how all these pieces were going to come together, especially the ongoing subplot about this killer chimpanzee, but I had faith in Peele (mostly). That faith was rewarded but I’ll admit for the first hour I was wondering if Peele was too evasive for his own good.
Nope begins as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and then transitions into Jaws and stays there, and it was during the second half that my interest magnified exponentially. It’s around the hour mark that the movie finally puts all its cards on the table and declares what it is and what the remaining movie is going to be about. All the stutter steps and vagaries are cast aside, and the movie finally shifts into its grand entertainment of a group of humans learning about an overwhelming and unusual threat and plotting their unorthodox plan of attack. I’ll still try and play around spoilers without getting too deep into specifics. It’s a great relief when Peele no longer has to tease his threads and mysteries and can at last be open and let the conflicting components come together. The annoyances I felt in the first half melted away, and I was satisfied as the movie picked up a genuine momentum and smartly tied in many prior plot elements for the bigger picture, like the inflatable tube men, old timey picture-taking souvenir machines, and even the very vague almost carwash-esque imagery from the opening credits. The second half of the movie is more fun because it’s a big hunt and it allows our characters to make use of what they have learned to form conclusions and strategic moves and adjustments. It’s characters making smart decisions. It’s a scenario that finally allows Peele to finally play with all the setups he’s spent an hour cheekily hiding around.
While the climax is great, and the movie gets consistently better, I don’t feel like all of its many thematic ties come together. Being a Jordan Peele horror movie, we’re now expecting there to be extra layers of social-political commentary and allegories. The back-story for Ricky as a child actor is given a lot of attention and screen time for a two-hour movie, and I don’t know if what it adds up to is equal to the time it was given. Thematically, you can make some speculative reaching about the exploitation of animals for spectacle, about underestimating and not respecting nature, and even setting up for later tragedy, but it all seems less meaningfully integrated than any other Peele movies’ elevated subplots. With the Ricky back-story, there is even a literal anticipation of a literal shoe to drop, which seems so obvious as a visual metaphor but I cannot link it directly with what follows. I can keep digging and find connections but it requires far more effort than Peele’s other works of horror. The family history of working for Hollywood as horse wranglers feels underdeveloped. There are also rules that it establishes that Peele isn’t fully consistent (just don’t look?) that left me questioning. I figured that colonialism would be an obvious parallel with invading aliens (H.G. Welles even made use of the analogy 120 years ago), but maybe that was too obvious territory for someone like Peele. My friend Ben had a crazy early theory that the aliens themselves would resemble horses and thus they were returning to free their equine brothers and sisters from human exploitation. I guess I’ll go ahead and spoil you, dear reader, that this does not happen in any shape with Nope.
I’d rank Nope the third best Jordan Peele horror venture, and while it clearly makes use of science fiction concepts and its rich iconography, it’s still very firmly a movie rooted in horror, the horror of the unknown, the horror of being small and helpless, the horror of being left behind. Not all of Nope’s many ambitions quite land, and the themes feel a bit more jumbled or underdeveloped, but I want Jordan Peele to continue making the movies he wants on his terms. Not every one is going to hit exactly the same for me, or for any viewer, but we’re all better when unique artists like Peele are given the latitude and support to bring their personal visions to the big screen. As long as he’s still achieving a baseline of quality, something that befell the middle Shyamalan period, then I say swing away and let’s see where you’ll take us all next, Jordan Peele.
Nate’s Grade: B
Orphan: First Kill (2022)
This is such a strange movie. The original Orphan, released in 2009, was an otherwise forgettable killer kid movie with a memorable twist: little Esther (Isabelle Furhman) wasn’t a child but a 30-something woman with a hormonal disorder (supposedly inspired by a true story). What do you do with a prequel when the young actress is now a grown woman and the audience knows the big twist from the start? The first answer is use a body double, have the other actors wear platform shoes or step on boxes, and forced perspective with some de-aging CGI sprinkled over Furhman’s adult face. That’s a whole lot of effort, albeit practical and less costly, to make a prequel without much going on. We follow young Leena as she escapes from an Estonian mental asylum and poses as a missing child from an American couple (Julia Stiles, Rossif Sutherland) who adopt her and bring her back to the States. It’s here where little “Esther” must keep up the illusion, with the mother already gathering her suspicion but not wanting to trouble her husband. For the first hour of this 100-minute movie, I was quite bored and the movie was relatively listless. There were some kills but it all felt like simply going through the motions, especially already knowing her secret and not being emotionally invested in whether her new identity would be maintained. And then the movie makes a sudden turn, one I’ll spoil right now because I think it makes the film actually watchable, where the mother confesses she knows Esther is not her missing daughter, is an adult woman, and then both of the women in this dysfunctional nuclear family are trying to undermine and kill one another while vying for the favor of the father/husband. It took an hour of sequel/prequel drift, but here First Kill (there are many after her first) finally delivers something new to do after sitting for an hour rehashing the original twist. I wish the screenplay had gotten here even earlier and veered into wicked black comedy. It definitely feels like the movie wants you to laugh at the escalating battle between fake daughter and fake mother. I laughed out loud over a scene with slippery dentures. There’s no real reason for this movie in 2022, especially with all the extra work to make it plausible, but I wish the filmmakers had just embraced all its goofy implausibility.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Black Phone (2022)
This is the movie that director Scott Derrickson made after departing Marvel over “creative differences” with the Doctor Strange sequel, differences I feel like I can agree with. Based upon Joe Hill’s short story, The Black Phone is a return to Derrickson’s horror roots, along with regular screenwriting collaborator C. Robert Cargill, and you can feel the director’s reflexes resetting. It’s like three movies in one, not all of them needed or entirely coherent. It’s about generational trauma and abuse, a survival thriller about escaping a psychotic serial killer, and a little kid trying to hone her nascent psychic powers. The stuff with Ethan Hawke as “The Grabber,” a kidnapper of children who imprisons them in a locked basement dwelling with a broken black phone attached to the wall, is great, and Hawke is fascinating and unsettling. Each mask he wears seems to come with a slightly different persona attached, so with each appearance we get another sliver of who this disturbed man may have been. The story of survival is made even more intriguing when our protagonist, young Finney (Mason Thames), learns that the past victims can communicate with him through the mysterious black phone. The scene-to-scene learning and plotting is fun and efficient and requires Finney to be a little bit of a detective, exploring his dank surroundings and the failed escape attempts of the other kids to utilize for his own hopeful plan. The ghost kids also have limited memory of their experiences, which is smart so that he isn’t given a clear advantage without limitations. The parts that drag are where Finney’s little sister tries to convince the skeptical police officials that her dreams are real and can help find her missing brother. There is one hilarious moment where she prays to Jesus for guidance and then profanely expresses her disappointment, but otherwise it feels like a Stephen King stereotype leftover (Hill is the his son; apple meet tree) that doesn’t amount to much besides padding the running time. It doesn’t even lead to big breakthroughs for Finney to be rescued. As a small-scale creepy contained thriller, The Black Phone is an engaging survival story with a supernatural twist that works as well as it does. It doesn’t have much more depth or meaningful characterization, it’s really just about a kid using the power of neighborhood ghosts to escape a crazy man, and that’s enough at least for a passably entertaining 100 minutes.
Nate’s Grade: B
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