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Darkest Edge (2020)

My pal Ben Bailey hates me reviewing Ohio-produced indie films. To be fair, he doesn’t have anything against the idea of providing critical and professional analysis to local filmmakers on their cinematic offerings. What he laments is how mediocre many of the finished projects end up being and how, in his view, it’s establishing a negative impression that Ohio movies suck. Truth be told, I haven’t found that one Ohio-made indie that has completely floored me. I’ve found several that I enjoyed and others that had elements to be proud about. The thriller Darkest Edge was filmed throughout Ohio and Kentucky and features Ohio talent in front and behind the camera. It’s the feature debut for director Naim David and screenwriter Joe Gribble. It’s a movie that aims beyond its own restricted reach but proves one of the less successful thrillers I’ve seen.

Mark (Christopher Rowley) is a Chicago journalist who is still reeling from his sister’s suicide. He’s on the verge of divorce and never seeing his daughter again, never mind his obsessive drinking. He’s given one final assignment, the closing of a notorious mental asylum in Dayton, Ohio, the very place that his departed sister spent time within. Ellen (Jocelyn Jae Tanis) is his assistant who insists upon being his camera operator. The two travel to Dayton and investigate the asylum, interview wary doctors, and Mark unlocks memories and secrets of his past.

Why is this thing in the middle of the screen?

Where this movie runs most adrift is with mood and execution. Look that that poster at the top of the review, check out the description of the plot setup, even judging by the spooky yet unmemorable title (I kept thinking “Dark Edge,” “Dark Corners,” “Darkest Corner” in my head). Even the tagline says, “Deep shadows lie at the darkest edge of the mind.” All of this is setting you, the viewer, to expect a creepy psychological thriller in a creepy asylum and for creepy things to happen. There have been horror movies that have been little more than watching wayward characters haplessly explore a haunted old locale, uncovering its secrets and perhaps its residents, living or dead. This simple plot setup can work as long as the filmmakers can execute their intended mood with aplomb. Unfortunately, Darkest Edge makes a critically fatal error in choosing its creepy locations. To put it simply, this soon-to-be-closing sanitarium is not scary looking in the slightest. The outside looks like a high school building from the 1960s. The inside looks very non-intimidating. There are doors labeled with pieces of paper and an accessible exit door literally within feet of “patient rooms.” While watching, my girlfriend pointed out this very problematic design flaw for a mental institution and I was aghast with that slip-up. The inside of this asylum is also practically abandoned. It’s supposed to be closing soon but there’s still supposed to be patients, evidenced by our characters randomly walking around the facility and finding doors obviously locked. This sense of emptiness will be a prolific problem with the movie (more on that later), but the asylum could have always been closed down and emptied already upon investigation. Another killer error is that almost the entire movie takes place during the day, which only further hampers the scare factor of this already ordinary looking building. It’s like watching people explore an office park and finding nothing. If Darkest Edge was going to hinge so much over a singular creepy location, oh is this place a big miss.

With the location not exactly hitting the intended mood, I held hope that the central mystery tying to the protagonist’s memory, his occasional alcohol-induced blackouts, and hazy memories of this particular asylum could generate the intrigue that the setting was not. Mark is torn over the suicide of his sister, he’s been drinking so heavily he reeks at work, and this asylum might be the very same one that his sister was held at during both of their youths. Surely there has to be a dark secret afoot, or we’re being set up for some last-minute twist. I started guessing what the twist would be within ten minutes, because Darkest Edge seemed overwhelmingly like the kind of thriller that would roll out a last-minute twist. I thought maybe Mark’s daughter was really dead. My most outlandish, hacky guess was that Mark was really still in the asylum and that everything outside was a figment of his fevered imagination. Admittedly, that would have been an awful ending but it would have tapped into the psychological thriller context of its genre. There isn’t really any sort of mind-bending twist here. There is a revelation but, shockingly, the movie goes down a sentimental route that feels unearned and tonally ill-suited for the prior 75 minutes. It’s such a curious ending and goes against the very setup of this kind of movie. You’re expecting the story to end in a dark, desolate, traumatic place. If you want catharsis, you got to put in the work as a storyteller.

Unfortunately, a word I seem to find myself using often here, Darkest Edge doesn’t provide a compelling personal mystery for the audience. Mark is a boring character. He’s troubled and haunted in a general sense but the screenplay doesn’t give us anything too specific. Yes, his sister kills herself and he feels some guilt over this, but the entire movie doesn’t provide insight into the sister character or their relationship. If he’s so hard up over her death, you don’t feel why. He’s a sloppy drunk, and if you made a drinking game where you took a drink every time you saw Mark drinking, or holding a bottle, then you would black out just like Mark. It’s his lone defining characteristic and it is given again and again and again. Strangely, Mark will black out and find himself transported to distant locations, like thirty miles away from where he was (the movie, weirdly, makes sure we know the mile distances between specific Ohio cities). You would expect this would be a clue about some larger context, a deeper meaning for the torment plaguing our protagonist. Well your guess is as good as mine because ultimately those blackout long-distance travels don’t get clarified at all. For Mark to function as a character, he needs more specifics, especially when it comes to a trauma. He needs a specific fear or tragedy that haunts him and resurfaces with his trip to the asylum. We get what appear to be flashback snippets of a little boy exploring the interior of the asylum (apparently it was also just as easy to wander back then too). It’s all too vague and poorly explained, forcing the viewer to extrapolate connections and meaning. By providing a specific trigger and goal at the start, a viewer could watch Mark journey through his trauma rather than having to guess at it and its implications. I assume this was designed to make Mark’s personal history more enigmatic, but mystery only really works when you’re invested; otherwise it’s just obtuse, and that’s what we have here with Mark and Darkest Edge.

The reality of Darkest Edge is hard to take seriously, and part of this is affected by the limitations of the low budget and certain filmmaking choices that accentuate those. Just because a movie has a low budget doesn’t mean it can’t succeed or utilize a clever creative ingenuity to tell its story and entertain. If you want to tell a creepy story about exploring a creepy location, choose a genuinely creepy location, and shoot it during night time to build an effective atmosphere. Use shadows to your advantage and play up the worry of what may be around the corner next. Build that sense of compounding dread. Walking ordinary hallways during daylight hours is not making your movie scary unless people are encountering weird events or threatening folk, neither of which happens here. There are some doctors hiding extreme methods but these methods are questionably vindicated by the end. There needs to be a clear threat and for the far, far majority of Darkest Edge there isn’t and this results in the movie feeling meandering.

The technical elements can be distracting and disappointing. The fuzzy sound design is a noticeable shortcoming, often dampening from shot-to-shot. The extreme lack of background noise is unmistakable and makes the movie feel like it was filmed in a space capsule. This, coupled with the lack of background activity and extras, makes the movie feel borderline like a Twilight Zone episode where there are only five or six people left on Earth. The limits of the reported $7500 budget are also felt with the shot selections; frequently a scene will just bounce between two set shots, locked into a plodding shot-reverse shot rhythm. There are dramatic moments that are kept at a distance when a closer shot was begging to showcase the actor’s emotive powers. It leaves an impression that the production was pressed for time to get editorial coverage, and it feels like actors were often filmed at different times and cut together for conversations. There is very limited lighting overall and the photography quality is also a step removed, so why not make this entirely a found footage film? That would have allowed the limitations of the production to be an acceptable part of the presentation. The music is also far too loud at points, drowning out the dialogue, and far too generic without establishing a sense of foreboding. I kept scratching my head at the artistic choices, which routinely magnified the budget shortfalls rather than making decisions that would better compensate instead.

The acting is mostly fine especially since the actors haven’t been given much to work with. The characters are boring and have one trait they get to rub down to its nub. Rowley (Primordial) has a beaten down, hangdog expression that works well. Most of the times he’s either playing hungover or short-tempered, and without a stronger personality, it’s easy to start mentally checking out with his character. Tanis (Lilith, Cinestudy) delivers a performance that manages to mingle ambition, naivete, and a barely concealed contempt for her colleague. She had so much more potential to explore and I wish we spent more time with Ellen rather than watching Mark get drunk for the twentieth time. Anthony Panzeca (Dodging the Bullet) plays an orderly at the asylum and makes a warm impression. His performance is the closest to unveiling charm in a cast regularly acting confounded or irritable. There’s a Dayton journalist that is such a confusing character for me. She buddies up with Mark by opening up her archives of news collections on the asylum. She then asks Mark what he’s found… in her own news archives? Shouldn’t she already be familiar with what she has?

Darkest Edge is not the movie the poster, tagline, or even setup proclaim it to be. It’s not really a thriller, let alone an accessible psychological thriller, and it’s not really a horror movie. It should be creepy given the setting and its supposedly sordid history, but too much of this movie is kept vague and obtuse, failing to give the audience a reason for watching. The characters aren’t that interesting or complex or compelling and their traumas are kept too unspecified to engage. If it was going to focus on the mental torment and troubled history of a troubled man, the script needed to make him more dimensional and his issues more central to the events unfurling. Tone-wise the movie doesn’t work or build a sense of momentum. It’s hard to make a scary thriller/horror movie when nobody looks like they’re scared, and that’s for good reason considering the settings are more mundane and plainer than skin-crawling and disturbing. I feel bad saying so but Darkest Edge is really a boring jaunt along empty hallways. Even if you’re an overly generous fan of this sub-genre, there is little to engage with during the padded 80 minutes. The most frightening aspect isn’t the haunted asylum but botching a go-to scary setting.

Nate’s Grade: D+

I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)

I expect strange from a Charlie Kaufman movie; that goes without saying. I also expect some high concept turned inward and, most importantly, a humane if bewildered anchor. His other movies have dealt with similar themes of depression (Anomalisa), relationship entropy (Eternal Sunshine), identity (Being John Malkovich), and regret from afar (Synecdoche, New York). However, no matter the head-spinning elements, the best Kaufman movies have always been the ones that embrace a human, if flawed, experience with sincerity rather than ironic detachment. There’s a reason that Eternal Sunshine is a masterpiece and that nobody seems to recall 2002’s Human Nature (ironic title for this reference). 2015’s Anomalisa was all about one man trying to break free from the fog of his mind, finding a woman as savior, and then slowly succumbing to the same trap. Even with its wilder aspects, it was all about human connection and disconnection. By contrast, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is all about a puzzle, and once you latch onto its predictable conclusion, it doesn’t provide much else in the way of understanding. It’s more a “so, that’s it?” kind of film, an exercise in trippy moments intended to add up to a whole, except it didn’t add up for me. I held out hope, waiting until the very end to be surprised at some hidden genius that had escaped me, for everything to come together into a more powerful whole, like Synecdoche, New York. It didn’t materialize for me and I was left wondering why I spent two hours with these dull people.

A Young Woman (Jessie Buckley) is traveling with her boyfriend Jake (Jessie Plemons) to meet his parents for the first time. It’s snowy Oklahoma, barren, dreary, and not encouraging. In the opening line we hear our heroine divulge the title in narration, which we think means their relationship but might prove to have multiple interpretations. It only gets more awkward as she meets Jake’s parents (David Thewlis, Toni Collette) and weird things continue happening. The basement door is chained with what look like claw marks. People rapidly age. The snow keeps coming down and the Young Woman is eager to leave for home but she might not be able to ever get home.

The title is apt because I was thinking of ending things myself after an hour of this movie. Kaufman’s latest is so purposely uncomfortable that it made me cringe throughout, and not in a good squirmy way that Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) has perfected. Kaufman wants to dwell and drag out the discomfort, starting with the relationship between Young Woman and Jake. She’s already questioning whether or not she should be meeting his parents and their inbound conversations in the car are long and punctuated by Jake steering them into proverbial dead ends. He’s a dolt. You clearly already don’t feel a connection between them, and this is then extended into the family meet and dinner, which takes up the first hour of the movie. I’m Thinking of Ending Things tips its hand early about not trusting our senses and that we are in the realm of an unreliable narrator. Characters will suddenly shift placement in the blink of an eye, like we blacked out, and character names, professions, histories, and even ages will constantly alter. The Young Woman is a theoretical physicist, then a gerontologist, then her “meet cute” with Jake borrows liberally from a rom-com directed by Robert Zeemckis in this universe (my one good laugh). Jake’s parents will go from old to young and young to old without comment. All the surreal flourishes keep your attention, at least for the first half, as we await our characters to be affected by their reality, but this never really happens. Our heroine feels less like our protagonist (yes, I know there’s a reason for this) because her responses to the bizarre are like everyone else. The entire movie feels like a collection of incidents that could have taken any order, many of which could also have been left behind considering the portentous 135-minute running time.

There are a lot of weird moments and overall this movie will live on in my memory only for its moments. We have a lengthy choreographed dance with doubles for Jake and the Young Woman, an animated commercial for ice cream, an acceptance speech directly cribbed from A Beautiful Mind that then leads directly into a performance from Oklahoma!, an entire resuscitation of poetry and a film review by Pauline Kael, talking ghosts, and more. It’s a movie of moments because every item is meant to be a reflection of one purpose, but I didn’t feel like that artistic accumulation gave me better clarity. There’s solving the plot puzzle of what is happening, the mixture of the surreal with the everyday, but its insight is limited and redundant. The film’s conclusion wants to reach for tragedy but it doesn’t put in the work to feel tragic. It’s bleak and lonely but I doubt that the characters will resonate any more than, say, an ordinary episode of The Twilight Zone. Everything is a means to an ends to the mysterious revelation, which also means every moment has the nagging feeling of being arbitrary and replaceable. The second half of this movie, once they leave the parents’ home, is a long slog that tested my endurance.

Buckley (HBO’s Chernobyl) makes for a perfectly matched, disaffected, confused, and plucky protagonist for a Kaufman vehicle. She has a winsome matter of a person trying their best to cover over differences and awkwardness without the need to dominate attention. Her performance is one of sidelong glances and crooked smiles, enough to impart a wariness as she descends on this journey. Buckley has a natural quality to her, so when her character stammers, stumbling over her words and explanations, you feel her vulnerability on display. After Wild Rose and now this, I think big things are ahead for Buckley. The other actors do credible work with their more specifically daft and heightened roles, mostly in low-key deadpan with the exception of Collette (Hereditary), who is uncontrollably sharing and crying. It’s a performance that goes big as a means of creating alarm and discomfort and she succeeds in doing so.

I know there will be people that enjoy I’m Thinking of Ending Things and its surreal, sliding landscape of strange ideas and images. Kaufman is a creative mind like few others in the industry and I hope this is the start of an ongoing relationship with Netflix that affords more of his stories to make their way to our homes. This is only the second movie he’s written to be produced in the last decade, and that’s far too few Kaufman movies to my liking. At the same time, I’m a Kaufman fan and this one left me mystified, alienated, and simply bored. I imagine a second viewing would provide me more help finding parallels and thematic connections, but honestly, I don’t really want to watch this movie again. I recall 2017’s mother!, an unfairly derided movie that was also oft-putting and built around decoding its unsubtle allegory. That movie clicked for me once I attuned myself to its central conceit, and it kept surprising me and horrifying me. It didn’t bore me, and even its indulgences felt like they had purpose and vision. I guess I just don’t personally get that same feeling from I’m Thinking of Ending Things. It’s a movie that left me out cold.

Nate’s Grade: C

She Dies Tomorrow (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Curse of Lilith Ratchet (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Rental (2020)

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

Nate’s Grade: B

The Beach House (2020)/ Archive (2020)

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

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

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

Nate’s Grades:

The Beach House: C

Archive: C+

Killer Raccoons 2: Dark Christmas in the Dark (2020)

Dear reader, I already know what your first question is regarding the title of this low-budget, schlocky comedy, and yes, there actually was a first Killer Raccoons movie. Back in 2005, writer/director Travis Irvine and his pals made Coons! Night of the Bandits of the Night for only $5,000 and their slasher killer was a team of trash-eating, nocturnal mammals with a bad rap. It got a small DVD release from Troma Studios and would be considered a success by any modest standards of genre filmmaking. For whatever reason, Irvine decided he had more raccoon-related mayhem to indulge and got his friends back together to make a sequel 15 years later. Filmed throughout Ohio in 2018, the end result is Killer Raccoons 2: Dark Christmas in the Dark (it seems in the ensuring decade, somebody wised up about not having “coons” as a title). As with other Ohio-based indies, I do happen to know several people involved in this local production but I will be doing my best to write an objective, bias-free review of… a killer raccoons movie. That might be one of the most absurd sentences I’ve ever written in my years as a film critic.

Ty Smallwood (Yang Miller) has just gotten out of prison after the events of the first film. He’s looking to start a new life, prefers to go by Casey, and has plenty of people unable to recognize him (it’s a different actor from the first film). Casey is meeting Darlene (Evelyn Troutman), the little sister of one of the women killed at that fateful campsite 15 years ago. They’ll better get to know one another over one long train ride home for the holidays. Ranger Rick Danger (Mitch Rose, also a different actor) has other plans. He and the other surviving members of the summer camp have hijacked the train with help from raccoons wielding automatic weapons. Ranger Danger plans on holding the nation’s government hostage (the mayor of their small town is now the Secretary of Defense) with a super phallic death laser satellite operated in space by trained raccoons (why? Who cares?). Casey teams up with a steward, Double A (Ervin Ross), and they go car-to-car trying to rescue passengers, evade armed raccoons, and thwart Danger’s evil catastrophic plans.

Somebody actually went and made a schlocky beat-for-beat parody of 1995’s Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, and I have yet to process whether this is a commendable act of unusual comedy obsession or simply a folly with no real appeal but to the smallest of fringe audiences. The Under Siege sequel was another DieHard-in-a-place setup happening miraculously again (this time on a train!) with Steven Seagal as its leaden lead, so devoting the plot structure to reminding people about the existence of this movie and its many low-points seems, in some sense, like the kind of hyper-specific meta ironic comedy you’d find in an Adult Swim special. In my own comedy writing, I rekindled an old TV series from the 90s that was unceremoniously cancelled after eight episodes (The 100 Lives of Captain Black Jack Savage), leaving its 100-countdown mission unfinished and dangling in my mind until I wrote my own conclusion. Re-examining some forgotten relic of personal pop-culture, especially something built around silly and stupid, is a fine starting point for a comedy riff. However, the expectation is that more will be done than serving as a reminder of that inspiration. If you’re simply re-creating the beats of the source to completion then what exactly is the point? Nobody needs a crummier version of an already crummy movie. That’s where Killer Raccoons 2 goes awry. It’s so committed to recreating Under Siege 2, including exact character roles, names, and many dialogue repetitions, that you could have removed the killer raccoons completely. I even started watching Under Siege 2 again for this review simply to determine if the pixelated spy camera nudity used in the opening to demonstrate the satellite’s telephoto prowess was exactly the same stock footage used in the actual movie (they are separate people; you’re welcome, world). Killer Raccoons 2 is more an inexplicably fixated parody than a goofy killer animal comedy, and that is a major letdown of imagination.

Let me give you an example of the disappointing complacency of too much of the comedy. The hijackers (all sporting an eye-patch, a stylish motif I did enjoy) are trying to find Darlene among the passengers since they now know she has value with her relationship to Casey. Darlene says she’ll adopt a disguise and she literally arranges a strand of hair to lay across her face like a fake mustache. Now this is a silly, obviously transparent disguise but it shouldn’t be the end of the joke. A better extension would be since we expect it to be so flimsy that it somehow works and the hijackers cannot tell the difference. Then the hair strand could drop and the hijacker would express immediate confusion and alarm, only for Darlene to place it back in place, and the hijacker’s worry replaced yet again (“There was another woman just here.”). It’s one idea but it’s an idea, building off subverting expectations and then developing the setup to build into something more. The problem with Killer Raccoons 2 is that there aren’t any real comic set pieces, no really well-structured scenarios that can make you smile from their very inception about what will transpire. The closest is an improvised fight with whatever household kitchen items are available, at one point pitting waffle maker against waffle maker. Much of the humor is so obvious that the obvious nature is itself the joke, like the chintzy special effects, bad wigs, and copious amount of penis jokes (the deadly satellite is named the “PEN-15”). However, there’s a fine line between an obvious joke being funny and the filmmakers pointing it out. There are too many times where characters literally explain jokes or point out the absurdities.

This is a 96-minute comedy when, in all honesty, it could have even been pared down to 80 minutes. The pacing can feel slack and many confrontations can stretch on, circling the same obvious joke. Even moments that work, like the improvised fight, go on too long and without sustained energy. There are way too many plot beats from Under Siege 2 distilled here (the Seagal movie is only a couple minutes longer). There are too many characters involved in the action too. I’m shocked how much effort Irvine has gone to in order to bring characters and story points from the original into this unexpected sequel. It’s been 15 years so I can’t imagine there was much demand for fidelity to not just Killer Raccoons 1 but also Under Siege 2. The most useless character is a painfully protracted cameo by the likes of aging porn star Ron Jeremy. I understand the appeal from a marketing standpoint of having a celebrity “name,” but the movie would have been better served with Jeremy making his contractual appearance and then hastily departing. The movie’s humor dies a tragic death every strained second he is regrettably onscreen.

As a hit-or-miss comedy, there are moments that had me genuinely laughing, mostly because of the exuberance of its go-for-broke cast. There were repetitions that would occasionally make me giggle, like referring to Darlene’s “dead sister he lost his virginity to,” or the emphasis on “for real dead for real” with characters always surviving insane mishaps through two movies. There are the occasional moments were a sudden escalation in violence against the raccoons got me to laugh. When the film is being silly, it has a charm where the goofiness and cheap budget enhance the entertainment value (“While this spoon appears to be harmless, it’s actually really super-hot”). Take for instance Ranger Danger furiously typing in the air but with no keyboard present. The sight itself is good enough to earn a quick goofy smile, but if the movie were to comment upon it, then the joke would just seem ruined. It’s that character that, by far, brought me the most laughter. The character of Ranger Danger is a twangy hoot chiefly because of the comic timing and impressive gusto of debut actor Mitch Rose. He takes okay jokes and adds such professional polish that got me to laugh out loud (“A gazillion dollars?” “I just… look, I made up a number”). Several of his line deliveries are pure wonders (everything about the golden VHS tape he so reveres), and he’s the kind of capable comic actor that could be the anchor of a bigger vehicle. Somebody get this man more work in the funny industry, pronto. Yang Miller (Huckleberry) is also deserving of praise by playing his self-serious loner hero so serious that he’s oblivious to his own ineptitude.

I don’t have to over-complicate this. By its overly verbose title alone, you’ll know if you have any interest in Killer Raccoons 2: Dark Christmas in the Dark. It’s a goofy comedy that’s proudly low-budget, lowbrow, and low on ambition. It’s a sequel to a movie nobody likely saw, religiously parodying an action movie that hardly anyone remembers, and it’s filled with little raccoon puppets that could have easily been ditched for what they add to the overall comedy. I’m a little shocked there aren’t more tasteless exploitation elements present, like gratuitous nudity, over-the-top gore, and more envelope-pushing crude humor. Killers Raccoons 2 feels decidedly juvenile but not quite transgressive. It’s not going to be a great experience but the hits might outnumber the misses, especially if your sense of humor is attuned to the likes of schlocky Troma movies, Conan O’Brien, and late-night Adult Swim. It’s that combination of trash and irony that can prove blithely appealing, though I wish Irvine had put more effort into his comedy compositions. It feels weird to lament what could have been with a title like Killer Raccoons 2, but this just could have been funnier. A strange side note is that Irvine ran as the libertarian candidate for governor in Ohio in 2018. There’s a lazy joke to be had about him running the government the way he makes his movies, but I’m not going to stoop to that level. That’s for Killer Raccoons 3.

Nate’s Grade: C

Palm Springs (2020)

I am a sucker for a clever time travel tale, or parallel universes, a sci-fi story where the creative ingenuity is front and center, and Palm Springs is a delightful new rom-com bursting with imagination. By this rate, most audiences should be familiar with the time loop formula, from comedy classic Groundhog Day to Source Code to Edge of Tomorrow to Netflix’s audacious series, Russian Doll. It’s a creative conceit that rests on building patterns and subverting expectations, allowing a writer an unparalleled opportunity to retell a story, pulling at the edges and getting to answer an assembly of “But what if?” questions. It builds out its world and makes it feel richer and more intricate, all the little stories and characters that might have been missed had there only been a single avenue. It requires a creative storyteller with a big imagination for details, but when done correctly, the time loop movie can be a wealth of satisfying payoffs and intriguing detours. Palm Springs deserves to be added to that list of hallowed time loop movies.

It’s the day of the wedding for Sarah’s (Cristin Milioti) sister. There’s one wedding guest that seems to stand out. Nyles (Andy Samberg) seems prescient on the dance floor, has a prepared speech that earns tears, and strolls through the reception like he owns it. Sarah becomes smitten with him and, against her better judgment, follows him into a mysterious glowing cave. She wakes up in her bed and relives the wedding day again, learning she too is now trapped in that 24-hour loop with Nyles. He laments that she followed him, having once encouraged another person to join him in the world of no tomorrows (a rueful Roy, played by J.K. Simmons). But with a partner, the many days have a new relevance, and Nyles and Sarah depend on each other, but is there a chance that they can escape or are they doomed to perform the Electric Slide forever?

Right away, you can tell that writer Andy Siara (TV’s Lodge 49) has given his story tremendous thought, and the fun of it is watching our main characters go through the process of discovery while learning more about each. The rules of the universe are straightforward; whether death or sleep, they will wake up back that fateful wedding morning. Nyles has felt trapped for so long and the prospect of another companion going through his same purgatory fills him with guilt, but he cannot help feeling a new purpose when he finds a partner for this weird world. Initially she’s looking for an escape, but then she opens up to the possibility to a life permanently on pause, without consequences, and how freeing this can be. Then the appeal dampens as we come to understand why this day is a personally painful one for Sarah and why she would be desperate to live another day, any other day. When she drops out for a solid stretch in the second half, you miss her just as much as Nyles and better realize what a great team they made. Palm Springs has plenty of fun with the possibilities (Nyles requests a quick death over a long drive to “beat the traffic”) but it doesn’t lose sight over why we should care about these people. It doesn’t really matter how the time loop began or whatever theory will end the loop. It’s the central relationship that will ultimately provide the emotional anchor, and it’s because of that attention that by the conclusion of Palm Springs I felt uplifted, buoyant, and happy (a mid-credits scene thankfully answers the one lose thread, providing an even more welcomed conclusion).

Make no mistake, this is a funny movie and I laughed often. Samberg (TV’s Brooklyn 99) and Milioti (Black Mirror) are terrific together and genuinely seem to enjoy one another. They have a combustible spark to them that reminded me of older screwball comedies. Having a willing partner allows Nyles to cater to different impulses but also pushes him to re-examine his perspective when he has someone new who sees the excitement in their unique position. However, except for Roy and his long drive from Irvine, they are hopelessly alone, unable to move forward, and the question arises can there be anything of significance without consequences? The screenplay has a natural dark streak with its humor, so even when things get heavy with existential quandaries, it doesn’t stop the movie from being smart and enjoyable. There are so many wonderful little payoffs, little running gags, and larger payoffs to be had with the time loop formula. It also hooks an audience by watching a character fail, and fail, and fail, only to succeed. Palm Springs is a romantic comedy that can be funny, romantic, and make me care.

Debut director Max Barbakow keeps the pacing swift and has fun playing with bold primary colors across the desert setting. The tone of the movie is delicate as it can go into silly revelry, like a surprise coordinated dance routine and a wedding outburst involving a bomb, into yearning romance, into heartfelt pathos, and then even the occasional stomach punch. For as rightfully beloved as Groundhog Day is, there’s nothing that comes close to feeling like an emotional gut punch. With Palm Springs, the time loop is given its sci-fi examination, the comedy is given is full exploration, but it’s the characters that matter most, and Barbakow prioritizes the right feelings at the right times. By the end, you feel sweetly fulfilled by these 90 charming minutes.

At first, I wondered why the Roy character was included except as a cautionary tale why Nyles would not want to rope someone else into his purgatory. But then as we visited with the older man, I realized, as he does, that he’s meant to symbolize the change in perspective (mild spoilers to follow). The family that he couldn’t stand before his loop-life has now become his personal oasis. He’s grown in appreciation and love of his family bonds. He is the example for Nyles about how one can personally grow and change when given dedication and enough time to see it through. It’s a nice moment, and while Simmons (Whiplash) is always wildly entertaining when he’s bulldozing over others, giving Roy a poignant sendoff made me feel like he was a much more integral character and his earned wisdom was its own special reward.

Palm Springs is a great detox of movie, with enough sunny comedy and winning romance to make you smile and enough tortured existential drama to provide substance. Everyone involved, from the writer to the director to the cast, is having a blast and it’s fun to join in the good times. When it comes to time loop cinema, Palm Springs is a respite of entertainment and smartly developed and richly realized execution. Find it on Hulu and kick back.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Disclosure (2020)

It starts with an accusation from a child during a playdate. Natasha, the four-year-old daughter of Emily (Matilda Ridgway) and Danny (Mark Leonard Winter), has a very serious accusation against the older nine-year-old son of Bek (Geraldine Hakewill) and Joel (Tom Wren). They’re neighbors, friends, and both sides are certain they can work things out like agreeable adults. Danny and Emily feel only right to be upfront about the accusation and ask to send the son to counseling. Joel and Bek are wary of this getting into the news (Joel is a local politician) and want the allegation withdrawn. Natasha says it happened. The boys say it did not. Over the course of one very long day, writer/director Michael Betham will push both couples to the brink.

Disclosure (not to be confused with another 2020 movie by the exact same name) plays out for 80 minutes like a play, locking us in one location with four characters growing increasingly hostile to one another. It’s an uncomfortable movie because it traps you in that squirming discomfort of hard conversations and high-pressure tactics to relent or capitulate on ethics. It’s important that we never really know the full truth of what actually happened between the children. We have what four-year-old Natasha has said happened, we have the denials from the older boys, who are older but still children themselves, and we have two sets of parents trying to make sense of some pretty startling behavior. Bek is convinced her own children could never commit something so heinous, and therefore Natasha must be confused or lying. She argues the children were too young to understand what her account alleges. Emily is convinced because of her daughter’s youth that she must be telling the truth, because why else would she concoct this harmful account? Each gets dug in from their perspective and only becomes more hardline. Bek reveals a startling secret of her own, being a victim of sexual grooming and manipulation in her youth, and this confounds Emily even more, asking why Bek doesn’t then believe the word of the victim here? These discussions begin in a civil manner that begins at surface-level neighborly pleasantries, but once the central conflict emerges and the opposing resolutions are debated, you start to wonder whether you are watching people at their extremes or whether you are watching the characters as they really are at heart.

This is a patiently paced movie with every scene feeling like its own mini-movie or individual play, often a two-hander, and I was rapt with attention each time to see how the tension escalated. The couples think they can resolve matters, that they can convince the other side to the merits of their perspective and they can be persuaded to come over to their thinking. Naturally, this doesn’t happen. Given the seriousness of the alleged act, it brings out a ferocious defensive side, contemplating how far each member of each couple is willing to go to protect their children. It’s not like they get into a knife fight or anything that breaks the tonal reality of the scenario, but there is a clear moment where we have a divide between heroes and villains. That designation is a little flippant as nobody is portrayed in a strictly villainous manner; however, there are obvious moral missteps late in the movie that rely upon power plays and leverage. Bek and Joel have so much more immediate power between the couples and they’re not afraid to inflict it. They come over unannounced, catching Emily and Danny relaxing naked in their pool, vulnerable, embarrassed, and already discombobulated. Danny is eager to smooth things over and find a middle-ground because he loves his wife, and daughter naturally, but also because he doesn’t want to lose a prime career opportunity of working on a book with Joel. Eventually, the wealthier couple will use their wealth and influence to maximum pressure, even if they lament how much more they have to lose if the details of the allegation became public. For them, they have more at stake and Emily and Danny should be more reasonable and accommodating to their requests.

Eventually, there is a turning point where Disclosure goes from uncomfortably ambiguous to picking a side. A character clearly goes into the wrong, and at first you believe this transgression is to defend their child, but as it continues you begin to wonder whether or not it’s simply to “win” the argument and push aside a larger introspection over what this accusation personally means for this family. It made me loathe the character although it makes them more interesting and complicated. Ultimately, you will never know what happened with the children and the ending is somewhat unsatisfying because we end in a stalemate. I was genuinely hoping the movie would keep going for another 15-20 minutes to advance the plot and tensions further, but I understand the principle of Betham leaving on a point of disagreement and ruin and leaving the characters wanting. There are words and actions that will be highly unlikely to be taken back. They must deal with it all.

Thankfully, the performances are universally strong to match the intensity of the story. It’s the women that make the biggest impact. Hakewill (The Pretend One) begins with the impression of Bek being an entitled rich wife who is used to getting what she wants, and over the course of those fractious 80 minutes, she proves how much this is merely an act. In fact, her own troubled marriage and past are in conflict with this veneer. Hakewill has several moments of barely-veiled rage that can be chilling but also heartbreaking. Ridgway (Book Week) is the face that many viewers will adopt as their own, meaning her perspective of treating her daughter’s accusation as credible and demanding response. She feels betrayed by her supposed friends, ambushed and wounded, and that she needs to remind her own husband to support their side of the argument. Ridgway is terrific as she tries to process her righteousness and disappointment over how everything spins out of control. The husbands are able in supporting positions, especially Wren (Winners & Losers) who uses a chummy sense of empathy as a shield he’ll drop at a moment’s notice. Winter (Escape from Pretoria) has the least to do simply of the players because his character attempts to be the most active peacemaker in the group.

Disclosure could have serviced as a stage play and the adaption wouldn’t have been too challenging but I’m glad Betham made this for the medium of film. I’m glad I got to see the subtle expressions of great actors trying to keep their cool, trying to stomach their resentment, and trying to force their opposition to retreat. It’s a pugilistic match where each side is convinced that they’re in the right or, in the wake of contrary evidence, that they have enough worth fighting for to be declared the winners. Characters keep saying they just want to think “about the children” and what’s best for them, but nobody seems to be on the same page about what that means. This isn’t an easy film to watch and given the thin line of sexual violence versus sexual exploration, as well as the question of how old a child can recognize their actions, it made me quite uncomfortable throughout, but I was always intrigued with where it would go next. Disclosure is a small Australian film that is available for streaming rentals and while it’s not going to be the most fun 80-some minutes of your day, it will definitely make you think.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Union Furnace (2015)

As an Ohio-based film critic seeking out Ohio-based indies to provide professional reviews for, I had to be asked whether I knew Nicholas Bushman, and the name was completely foreign to me. Bushman was born in Columbus, dropped out of school at 16 to make movies, and has four features and counting to his name. His IMDB bio even declares, “Bushman has announced himself as one of the most promising voices outside of the Hollywood establishment.” Take that, anybody making movies in New York City. I kid but I was excited to discover a new Ohio filmmaker who has found a level of success on his own terms. I watched his 2015 thriller Union Furnace because it was filmed in southern Ohio, and parts of Columbus, and also because my girlfriend’s mother knew some people linked to the movie and had a DVD copy available. It’s a low-budget, scuzzy little thriller that forces the viewer to ask how far they would go for a buck.

Cody (Mike Dwyer, co-writer with Bushman) is a car thief whose life is spiraling out of control. He comes across a mysterious stranger (Seth Hammond as “Lion Mask”) with a tempting proposition that could solve his money woes. Cody agrees to enter into an underground series of betting games. He’s blindfolded, taken to a woodsy location, and finds himself competing with seven other strangers (this includes Keith Freaking David). They’re trapped, staring down a crowd of creepy mask-wearing gamblers, and the implied threat only one will survive.

There are three clear paths to do a movie like Union Furnace: 1) deliver characters worth rooting for through these trials and tribulations or at least characters with secrets who might not be as they seem, 2) deliver really fiendish and degrading games and tests that a viewer can think alongside and imagine what they would do if given a terrible choice of terrible options, and 3) slowly unravel a mystery of who is responsible for the games and what their motivations are. It’s even further disappointing that Union Furnace doesn’t really do any of these. Let’s go path-by-path and analyze where the film’s storytelling shortcomings hamper its development.

It’s really hard to find any interesting character to emotionally engage with here. Perhaps they’re meant to be kept at a surface-level to adopt the perspective of our lead, Cody, as he too is trying to figure out who these people/competitors are over the course of one hellish night. If that’s the case, which I think is cop-out reasoning, then we need more careful attention given to Cody as our protagonist. He’s the main character of the film and the only person we follow before the fateful games, and it feels like he has material that could be utilized to make him a better formed character. He’s in debt, he’s stealing cars from church parking lots, he’s been in trouble before, and he might have a drug addiction. That’s a fine beginning for a desperate character, but what does it add to the overall narrative once the games actually begin? Sadly, too little. I was waiting for the games to have an ironic personal connection to the struggles of Cody, like maybe something relating to renewing an addiction that would make him question his limits. I suppose you could be overly generous and say Cody wanting the money for himself and then thinking of others is a character arc, but that’s too broad and unearned because of the lackluster supporting characters. Too many of these characters get whisked away too quickly to make much of an overall impression. Not having any character to really root for, or emotionally connect with, is a miscalculation considering the other miscalculations in narrative construction.

We’ve seen low-budget thrillers and horror films with similar premises, like Would You Rather and Cheap Thrills and even Saw, that present the audience with a garish game to play along. It’s part of the appeal of these kinds of movies, envisioning yourself onscreen and what you’d do. Take the simple games of Would You Rather that involve harming yourself or harming another person, taking an awful punishment as-is or the potential mystery option that could be worse. Those kinds of scenarios allow for characters to open up for an audience, show us who is selfish, who is squeamish, what their personal morals and ethics can be when tested. The games need to be conversation-starters above all else, and that’s where Union Furnace misses. I looked at the running time and an entire HOUR passes before any of the seven games crosses into being something truly intriguing or stomach-churning. For the majority of the running time, the games are obtuse versions of what feel like childhood schoolyard games. The first game is literally playing a board game. There’s also a game of who cannot speak and even musical chairs. It’s not like these simple games have been given a sharper edge, like the chairs in musical chairs each have a knife propping out from the seat, so lunging and fighting for that coveted seat could turn very precarious (actually, maybe I will write that musical chairs horror film after all). There’s a level of obfuscation that also harms the sinister impact of the games. Some of them are unclear exactly what the contestants should even be aiming for. A late one seems to involve forced sexual contact, and it’s played in a restrained manner out of taste, but by leaving it so unclear it actually minimalizes the impact of its degradation. These games are fairly lame.

And lastly we have the revelations pertaining to our mask-wearing organizers and their betters, and I hope you’re also ready to be disappointed. The ringleader in the lion mask lacks a strong personality or menace to be truly memorable or to keep our attention as a nefarious emcee. Besides Cody, we spend the most time with Lion Mask but do we gain anything? The dialogue is obtuse and later conversations between Cody and Lion Mask feel like they’re holding two separate conversations, talking past one another than learning from the other. Take lines like, “You wandered wide the primrose path and found friends in Night Alley and Circus Surprise City” and, “You know, people are critical because they want to get something off their chest, because they want to put something in their heart.” Huh? There’s not exactly anything that forms into a specific point of view for this character that helps to drive his actions. He’s more or less just a performer revving up his crowd of gamblers. I was hoping we might get more of a history behind the organization and its rumors of traveling from economically distressed small-town to the next small-town, like a deranged carnival sideshow. There isn’t enough here to justify being this vague. The sense of discovering as it pertains to identity and mission are unimportant. I suppose there can be power in the idea of your neighbors possibly being behind dime store Halloween masks, ready and waiting to bet on your life if given the opportunity, but the dramatic potential is much higher if you actually do something with that rather than keep the organization vague.

Being a low-budget thriller, Union Furnace does have technical merits worth bragging about. It’s a professional-looking movie and has some of the best sound I’ve heard from an indie production, which is usually a cumbersome handicap to many smaller movies. The filmmakers use their limitations to their advantage in artistic ways. I was expecting a limited location thriller but the grimy basement-esque dwelling adds a really effective discomfort for everything. The cinematography by Roy Rossovich (Evil Takes Root) makes smart use of lighting to make everything feel even more seemly, so exposed lights, high contrasts, and neon colors bathe the actors, making them feel like they’re in a 1990s music video (Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” came to mind) or a snuff film of the same wallpapered era. This is smart artistic collaboration and taking a potential negative, a lower budget, and finding creative ways to make it more a strength. As a director, Bushman is pretty solid all around. He has a fine command of visual compositions and building mood through select bizarre imagery. There’s a moment where a woman in a flesh-colored mask sings a rendition of the national anthem, and it’s so weird and off-putting that I wished Bushman gave us even more bizarre moments like this. Even just watching the trailers for his other films, I can tell Bushman is a natural director. I’d be curious to watch his other movies like his follow-up Stranger in the Dunes, filmed in North Carolina as a gift for his crew who braved the sub-freezing temps for Union Furnace.

The performances are decent but David (Cloud Atlas) is clearly the titan here. Even getting an actor of David’s caliber for something this low-budget in Ohio is an amazing accomplishment. Watching David command the screen is exciting in such a smaller role; I figured either he was going to die very quickly or go a long way, but I didn’t initially know which. He has a few strong angry outbursts where he feels he’s reached his limit and how much nonsense he’s willing to tolerate. He has an instant magnetism that the other actors simply don’t have (to be fair, he is Keith David). Dwyer (Future Lies), in only his second onscreen acting credit, does a serviceable job as the lead actor, especially at conveying the resignation of his character’s doomed thoughts suffocating him. Katie Keene (Clowntown) was another standout as a single-mother who gets some of the worst of the games. Her shell-shocked horror is some of the most quietly affecting moments.

On the DVD extras, Bushman reveals that he and Dwyer only spent two weeks writing the screenplay for Union Furnace, and I honestly can say they needed more time. I kept waiting for something more, a turn, a twist, taking it to their oppressors, revealing some hidden personal depth that had been lying in plain sight, just something more than what felt so remorselessly rote. If the movie was going for straight nihilism, then the games needed to be fiercer and from the start. If we were meant to engage with the characters, then we needed more time seeing how these games are affecting them other than paranoia and bluster. If the movie was going for a mystery, then the wrong things were kept in secret, like understanding the expectations for the games. If you’re a fan of seedy, low-budget thrillers you may find enough enjoyment from Union Furnace and its technical merits, plus the presence of the great Keith David. I’ll be curious to investigate the other movies of Nicholas Bushman. As a director, I think he’s showcasing skill and potential. As a writer, I’m less sure of that. Still, the man is making his own movies on his own terms and he’s cranking them out every couple of years. He’s making this a career, and I hope that he can continue doing so, as well as hopefully re-evaluating what’s best for a story.

Nate’s Grade: C

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