Saturday, February 25, 2017

2016: The Year in Review

While I've already begun delving into the the cinema offerings of 2017, I couldn't let the Oscars creep up without giving 2016 a sendoff here, complete with a list of what I'm, most looking foward to this year As those of you who follow me on social media know, I published my Top 10 at Audiences Everywhere back in December. While that ranking has remained the same, I was able to catch up on more 2016 releases since then and finalize my Top 20. I watched a total of 171 movies in 2016 and 103 of those were 2016 releases. Here's my full list and ranking of the films I saw last year:

Top 10 (originally published at Audiences Everywhere.)

1. The Witch

The Witch avoids any sense of rightness. Cinematically, morally, tonally, David Egger’s film never settles for anything less than a jarring wrongness. Dread permeates the entire film, but that dread rarely stems from the same place from moment to moment. Whether the source of dread be from Mark Kroven’s sometimes anachronistic score, Jarin Blaschke’s shadow-filled cinematography, David Eggers’ steady and purposeful gaze, or the performances of the actors who make up the Puritan family at the center of the film, The Witch never provides a source of familiar comfort. While being a horror movie (any argument that The Witch isn’t is simply absurd), Egger’s film is also faith-based. Faith is challenged in this film both in the conversations between the characters and the images and symbols that are perverted and corrupted. Thomasin, a breakout performance from Anya Taylor-Joy, undergoes a crisis of faith, not just in Christianity, but also in the moral sanctity of family, and achievability of success through hard work and belief. Thomasin’s crisis positions her as other, alone in her changing values and the burden of sin unfairly placed upon her by the rest of her family. Ultimately, it is a deep desire for belonging that defines the titular witch, a lust to be plural instead of singular. We see this natural order in plurality through Thomasin’s younger twin siblings, the two white goats on their farm, the pile of fire wood, and the rotting pillars of corn. Faith, while established as a communal bond, becomes individualized as each member of the family begins to question it and strays from shared Puritanical notions, just as a difference in faith led to William and his family’s banishment from the larger plantation. Thus, if a community cannot be found through Christ, for this family, then their only alternatives in their isolation are to die alone, or to find community through sin in its lack of rigid rules and explanations. Implicitly doing so, The Witch gives weight to the notion of a coven, and defines it through the outliers of America’s non-secular institutions. The Witch basks in the horror beneath the newly laid floorboards of America, and with that comes horrific insights into the American Dream.

2. Moonlight

Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is poetry. The silence that fills the spaces in between the major moments of Chiron’s life give the film rhythm, and this rhythm creates identity. Throughout the three acts of Chiron’s life that we encounter him, silence becomes his defining characteristic. This silence is not only a result of the abuse brought down upon him by his mother and peers, but also silence brought about by his inability to answer a question he poses early in the film, “am I gay?” While the journey of self-discovery Chiron takes to answer this question, or to avoid this question at times, takes brutal and heartbreaking turns, Jenkins never avoids situating the viewer in a place of empathy. If the viewer cares about human beings, then Jenkins makes it impossible not to feel connected to Chiron, his hurt, his longing, and his awakening—each beautiful in their own distinct way. This empathy carries over to the film’s other characters as well. Two of the film’s most morally questionable characters, Chiron’s drug-addicted mother (Naomi Harris) and the drug-dealer, Juan, who befriends him (Mahershala Ali) are both painted with a humanity that respects their struggle but also splattered with the consequences of their lives. Humanity is messy, and Moonlight manages to turn this aspect of the human condition into an art form.   Like last year’s Carol, Moonlight is a progressive step in cinema in that it refuses to turn its characters into martyrs, and instead celebrates the poetry of their lives. As an LGBTQIA film, as a black film, as a human film, Moonlight’s compassion and understanding for the complexities of identity and sexuality is the bar to aim for.

3. Swiss Army Man

Who would have guessed that Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan’s farting corpse movie would be one of the most life-affirming movies of the year? Swiss Army Man is a film composed out of what many would deem seemingly worthless ideas, and created in an effort to encourage a celebration of honesty and things left unsaid—the beauty and ugliness of life with no need to apologize for it. It’s an undoubtedly silly and strange movie, with moments that could be considered major turnoffs for many audience members. Despite its apparent immaturity, the Daniels take a heady and heart-filled dive into how social constructs both hurt and help us. Paul Daniel and Daniel Radcliffe give a codependent performance where each makes the other stronger and infuse Hank and Manny with bits of sadness and sweetness that make them endearing but also purposeful in their respective flaws and attributes. In many ways this film is a lesson about what being human means at its core, away from all the bullshit. With humanity comes hurt, and while so much of the film is charming and easygoing, it’s also mixed with a slight dread. This dread stems from the fact that we know the world of honesty and love Hank and Manny created in the woods, cannot exist within the confines of the self-conscious, ego-driven, and ultimately fear based walls of our world. Swiss Army Man attempts to break down the walls in our head that have made society what it is, while also breaking the barriers of traditional filmmaking. Every year we talk about how the films that are the most respected rarely push the art forward. Swiss Army Man, eschews any traditional appeal for respect, but narratively, musically, and visually it pushes film forward as an art form and as a teaching tool for understanding the human condition. Swiss Army Man is a multi-purpose gift that had a profoundly positive personal effect on me. 

4. Everybody Wants Some!!

Richard Linklater’s spiritual follow-up to Dazed and Confused, brings all the best parts of college to the screen in what is truly, and without hyperbole, the feel good film of the year. Everybody Wants Some!! Is about appreciating the moment you’re in, but ironically Linklater creates a world we want to live in, through a sense of nostalgia for a world some of us never even experienced. The characters he creates, the 80s setting, the music, all contribute to our desire to be part of this time period, to see the potential in ourselves and in the world restored. There’s a simplicity to the film, which doesn’t mean that it’s without conflict, only that the conflict is so small in scale compared to real-world conflict many of us are facing outside of the theater, and perhaps the conflict these young men will face after graduation. The thing is, Linklater’s film isn’t simply a look at something that’s gone, and the mantra “here for a good time, not for a long time” doesn’t simply apply to college life. Everybody Wants Some!! Is Linklater’s impassioned statement to live life to its fullest, to shake off nostalgia and perhaps a bit of responsibility, and create our desirable world in the here and now. All of Linklater’s films are about living life to the fullest in some regard, about taking chances and falling head over heels in love with everything these key moments in time offer. Everybody Wants Some!! achieves that message, and while it may not push the director as far as some of his other films have, that message stands as a necessary reminder in this year of all years. While the film doesn’t wax quite as philosophically as some of Linklater’s previous films, some of those larger questions about life and purpose still exist in the background, ready and waiting to be discovered with the hindsight of maturity. Everybody Wants Some!! gives us not only a good time, but one of the best times of the year, and that’s something that can last.

5. La La Land

More than a simple throwback to the grand Hollywood musicals of the 1950s, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is a film focused on compromise under the bright lights of success. Falling far closer to Whiplash than Singin’ in the Rain, La La Land’s examination of fame and greatness is at times heartbreaking, it’s message sometimes clashing against the bright visual palate and musical numbers of the film. It works as both fanciful tribute and realist warning to those chasing the Hollywood dream. Through its blending of styles and intentions, La La Land effectively becomes a jazz film through which Chazelle risks displaying his own successes and frustrations within the context of a musical. While it’s easy to become distracted by La La Land’s surface level aspects, it’s production design and musical numbers which range from lovely to exceptional, the film is communicating a necessary mixed message of Hollywood. To position the film simply as a feel-good romp, or attempt at reviving Hollywood classicism is to do the film a disservice. Ryan Gosling’s and Emma Stone’s respective performances as Sebastian and Mia are defined by a naturalism we rarely see in musicals. It’s clear that they aren’t stage stars stepping onto the big-screen, and as a result their emotions ground the film, even amidst the dancing and singing. While a frequent criticism of filmic musicals is the spontaneity of characters bursting into song, without the benefit of being live, there’s nothing spontaneous about La La Land. Every beautiful melody from Justin Hurwitz’s haunting and lively score is steadily built, every decision Mia and Sebastian make is carefully considered and weighed. And Chazelle doesn’t simply settle for letting the singing and dancing do their work against an artful production design, he directs the hell out of it. With attention to shot composition, framing, and a balance between image and meaning, Chazelle aims beyond the simple movie musical for something that is artful in its technical skill. For all of its hat tips to another era, few films felt more modern this year than La La Land.

6. Arrival

Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s short “Story of Your Life,” is a delicate balance of ideas and sentiments for a world currently teetering due to its communication failures. Complicated human emotions, a dense study of language and thought, and blockbuster-level effects coalesce to become indispensable elements of a science-fiction film we’re desperately in need of at this moment. As we witness a small group of scientists and military personal attempt to communicate with recently landed aliens in an attempt to discover their intentions, Villeneuve lingers on notions of how learning another’s language is to also learn their thought process. He, screenwriter Eric Heisserer, and editor Joe Walker carefully construct the path for a surprising, and haunting ending early in the film. And they do this with a quiet dignity, and refusal to cater to the kinds of action beats, set-pieces, and reveals that we normally encounter in alien arrival films. Villeneuve treats semantics the same way some alien arrival films treat explosions and space battles, thus tempting audience members to find the same kind of excitement in seeing metaphorical bridges built as we do in seeing literal ones destroyed in so many other films. A large part of what makes Arrival work also resides in an incredible, and haunting performance from Amy Adams, who has the greatest effect on the film with quiet moments. She becomes our emotional anchor in a film driven by science and grand-ideas, reminding us that the greatest strength of human is a willingness to learn, embrace change, and ultimately embrace life. Arrival is an immigrant song, but also a call for acceptance, and reminder that the greatest gifts lie in our ability to peacefully communicate. There could not be a more profound and necessary catharsis for our post-election crisis than a film that understands humanity’s greatness in possibility, the tragedy of our limitations, and the needful hope for our continued existence.

7. The Invitation

Karyn Kusama invites us into the world of this film with a mercy killing, an act that sets the tone and theme for the rest of the film that follows. The Invitation begins as a tense bottle drama as Will and his girlfriend attend a party at his ex-wife’s house. As the intentions of the party become clear, the film becomes a full on horror movie that uses friendship, desire, and grief against each of the attendees. Much of the tension and resulting horror is achieved through Kusama’s deliberate use of space. The exterior of the house looks large and spacious, but inside Kusama controls the setting, making it feel tight as she pushes the camera in on character’s faces, and positions them next to walls and doors, constantly making it feel as if the environment is closing in around these characters. The layout of the house becomes deliberately confusing, with too many long hallways, too many doors to keep track of the exits, and the possibilities lurking in the shadows. Logan Marshall-Green’s paranoid performance as Will is one of the strongest of the year, as it constantly leads the viewer to question the veracity of what we encounter but is also one filled with raw emotional hurt over the loss of his child. Will turns every interaction with old-friends into an awkward encounter with a stranger, a constant source of discomfort within the forced comfort of the softly lamp-lit house, until we have no idea who any of these people really are. During the second half of the film a game of “I Want” becomes the film’s standout scene as it reveals the secret tragedy of each guest, and makes every tense allegiance all the more fragile.  Once the ultimate secret is revealed, and Kusama takes us all into full on panic mode, she delivers the most staggering ending of the year. By then it’s all clear, The Invitation is full on emotional assault.

8. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice- Ultimate Edition

There’s nothing gentle about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Zack Snyder’s film is one that refuses to tone down its lofty thematics and refuses to play its absurd moments for winks. It takes fan and non-fan alike and hurls them head first into what comic books actually are: a collision of the facts and ideas that make up the very bones of storytelling, and the inherent but rarely acknowledged silliness that comes from watching grown men in costumes face pseudo-science and existential identity crises. In Batman v Superman, everything here is presented on a ceremonial pedestal, and why shouldn’t it be when comic book adaptations dominate our news, social media, and pop-cultural atmosphere? Batman v Superman, offers an introspective look at some of the world’s most popular characters, making them matter in today’s socio-political climate, and making them feel like actual human beings with hopes, flaws, and existential considerations. This is The Last Temptation of Christ by way of DC Comics. This is a comic book movie by a director who refuses to just aim for “fun” and be done. Snyder makes it clear that if these heroes and villains are to matter, if they’re going to fill up our news feeds and studio release slates, then they’ve got to be challenged. They’ve got to be retrofitted within the context of a world where guns are problematic symbols of power, immigrants are feared and hated, and the media does make monsters for ratings. Snyder doesn’t change these characters, he simply understands comic book history better than most directors (and most viewers), and chose which elements would mean the most in our currently shifting world. The film leaves us on a note of hope and inspiration, something that had to be worked for, thought about, and earned the hard way by the heroes central to the film. No, Batman v Superman may not be gentle, but in its invitation to work through it, to think about it beyond the theater doors and echo-chamber of social media, it provides one of the most satisfying experience of the year, and hope for the future of the comic book movies.

9. Green Room
Jeremy Saulnier delivers the same authenticity he found in Blue Ruin for his concentrated and deeply discomforting story of a punk rock band forced to fight for their lives against a small army of skinheads. Within the confines of a secluded bar in the middle of the woods, we find chaos as the descendants of two groups made to push back against the changing world (punk-rockers and Nazis) clash, and encounter a desert island of the human spirit. Saulnier uses the film’s visceral violence and the characters’ struggle to survive as an exploration of the nihilistic soul of modern American culture. Punk rock doesn’t just play into the sound and aesthetic of the film, but works within its thematic foundation, as the film uses punk music to explore displacement, isolation, and imitation. Patrick Stewart’s Neo-Nazi leader, Darcy, is the Iggy Pop of his world, an originator and icon of his specialized depravity. His young followers have become more chaotic, more disruptive, and unorganized in comparison to the traditions Darcy founded. They are punks without a sense of purpose or commitment beyond labels. These young Neo-Nazis are ultimately not so different from the Ain’t Rights, who as exemplified in a tremendous performance by the late Anton Yelchin, are on their own quest for purpose within the country’s changing landscape. Imogen Poot’s Amber is on her own quest as she plays witness to the struggle, and a discordant voice of honesty in the other characters’ search for meaning and honor in violence. By Green Room’s end, neither music nor violence can hold the world together, and in the ruins of the things that our characters believed gave them purpose and identity, we’re left with a state of anarchy that our characters could previously only imitate.

10. The Nice Guys

Shane Black’s tricks of the trade have become familiar territory by now. We always have some idea of what to expect when it comes to his odd-couple, buddy cop yarns, set during the most spirited of seasons.  Yet, despite that factor, The Nice Guys is no less engaging, surprising, or skillfully crafted than if this were the first time we were hearing Black’s voice. While Black knows that certain expectations rest on his name, he refuses to rest on them. It’s in The Nice Guys that we see the years of developed skill on both high-profile blockbusters and smaller, cult films at work. Shane Black is only getting better at making movies, and while his name may not bring in the box office numbers of some of his peers, his voice is no less essential to film.  This is a film with energy, a neon colored coke high that’s propelled by its mixture of crime subgenres and the bombastic performances of leads Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. The mystery, centered around a missing girl, a dead porn star, and the automobile industry is just as expectedly messy as something we’d see in a Chandler novel, only with more edginess and shock value in Black’s hand. While the mystery has pointed political relevancy once solved, it’s the characters on the case who pull us into the movie. Crowe’s Jackson Healy and Gosling’s Holland March are damaged humans, and the case they find themselves mixed up in ultimately isn’t about saving L.A. or the country (despite the stakes that point to that), but saving themselves. The Nice Guys holds the promise of individual happiness in an unhappy world and self-worth through the meaningless struggle to fight against inevitability and a changing world. Wrapped up in a complex LA neo-noir plot, The Nice Guys is a deeply felt, and deeply funny, character study that promises nothing less than fulfillment in the aftermath of failure. 

11. Sing Street
12. 10 Cloverfield Lane
13. Manchester by the Sea
14. Doctor Strange
15. The Edge of Seventeen
16. Kubo an the Two Strings
17. Moana
18. Zootopia
19. Jackie
20. The Lobster

Honerable Mentions: Midnight Special, Don't Breathe, Hell or High Water, In a Valley of Violence, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

2017's Most Anctipated:
1. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
2. Justice League
3. Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2
4. Blade Runner 2049
5. Wonder Woman
6. Logan
7. Alien: Covenant
8. War for the Planet of the Apes
9.  Dunkirk
10. The Dark Tower

I'd like to thank everyone who visted my blog this year. Please check out further work from me and my friends at Audueicnes Everywhere. Here's to a great 2017!

Friday, November 4, 2016

Doctor Strange Review

(dir. Scott Derrickson)

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
After an arrogant doctor loses the use of his hands in car accident, he travels the world in search of a cure and discovers an order of sorcerers and the power selflessness that enable him to take on a rogue apprentice bent on delivering immortality to humanity at any cost.

There has been a certain sameness to Marvel Studios’ pictures of late, resulting in enjoyable but ultimately disappointing trips through a universe that feels increasingly stripped down in their efforts to deliver a more unified style and tone. While Doctor Strange may be a lesser known Marvel property, there was never any chance that the movie would fail financially, but artistically one could see it either going the way of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy and introducing a new energy and style worthy of our investment in this cinematic universe, or the way of Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man by giving us a few new, fun concepts, but ultimately doing little (no pun-intended) to really give us something unlike anything else we’ve seen in blockbusters. Luckily, Doctor Strange falls far closer to Guardians of the Galaxy, not in tone or style, but in its sense that this is a film crafted by a director with a clear vision of how their voice can add to the MCU, not be swallowed whole by it.

While the superhero origin story has become a bit trying for moviegoers, the use of the origin in Doctor Strange is a necessity that firmly situates us within the new concepts introduced here. The Marvel formula the comics and films are built on are apparent in this film, as the hero learns the cost of his hubris and discovers, in so many words, that “with great power comes great responsibility.” This manta, true as it is, isn’t what makes these characters or this movie work, but rather the variations on this theme. Yes, in broad strokes, Doctor Strange’s journey to heroism isn’t too dissimilar from Iron Man, or Thor, or Star Lord, or Ant-Man but it’s the execution that matters with these characters and movies. What’s always potentially fresh and fascinating is not the why of these heroes, but the how, and on that front Doctor Strange delivers one of the best origin stories of the MCU. Despite the film’s brisk pace (it runs just under two hours), Doctor Strange manages to do what so few superhero films manage to do well, even with an extended runtime, which is to allow their hero to learn their lesson and increase their skills over a what feels like an extended period of time, rather than just a few days’ time (looking at you, Thor) or a montage that rushes the pacing (Captain America: The First Avenger). Even after Strange’s years of training in Nepal, he still isn’t a master of the mystic arts, nor has he completely learned humility yet. The character’s journey is constant and in the spirt of Mad Max: Fury Road happens through the action scenes and supporting characters, not outside of them. Whether it be because of Derrickson’s knowledge of the character, or Marvel’s realization that the superhero origin story had to be reworked in order to function, Doctor Strange is the most adept solo-origin character for the studio since they kicked things off with Iron Man in 2008.

Marvel Studios never whiffs when it comes to casting and Doctor Strange is no different. There was never any doubt that Benedict Cumberbatch would make an excellent Doctor Strange, what’s most surprising is that he actually got to play the role. His casting is of the kind that fifteen years ago fans would have clamored for while the studio system went with Nic Cage or Johnny Depp. Cumberbatch sells it completely, managing to live up to the suave intrigue of the comic character while adding his own bit of charm that surprisingly makes him more likeable and identifiable than his comic counterpart. While Strange is typically emotionally closed in the source material, Cumberbatch goes the opposite direction by allowing us to feel his anger, disappointment, confusion, and over-confidence. While some of these emotions may mask larger personal issues, as his teacher, the Ancient One, points out, they allow for a layered character whose flaws make him likeable. Mads Mikkelsen, Chitwetel Ejiofor, and Benedict Wong each respectively shine as Kaecilius, Mordo, and Wong respectively. These characters who were steeped in tropes of the 60s are given the same layered treatment as Strange, establishing this as a world with supporting characters and villains who hold just as much promise as their hero. The film doesn’t delve much into anyone’s backstory and while this may be prove frustrating for some, it creates a level of intrigue similar to that of Disney other major franchise, Star Wars. Unfortunately, this intrigue and layered presentation doesn’t hold true for Rachel McAdams’ Nurse Christine Palmer. McAdams gives a likeable performance as Strange’s love interest and semi-confidant but there’s not much to her character outside of being there to showcase Strange’s change from selfishness to selflessness. She’s not a character who works on her own, and wouldn’t be missed in a sequel, which is a shame given McAdams talents. But female characters aren’t left completely out of the loop of greatness as Tilda Swinton shines in her performance as the Ancient One. Typically, she’s given roles the rely on coldness, but Swinton displays and warmth and humor that’s so engaging that it’s evident why the Ancient One would have so many devout followers. Swinton’s casting was controversial given that in the comic’s the Ancient One is an elderly Asian man, and I had my doubts that this would be handled well. But Swinton’s Ancient One is that comic character in name only, her hinted background, and personality being one created entirely for the film. Together Swinton and Cumberbatch perform one of my very favorite scenes in the MCU, a quiet character moment right before the film’s climax that really showcases a film that resonates beyond its visual acumen.

There’s really no shortchanging what Scott Derrickson and cinematographer Ben Davis do visually with this film. We’ve seen some pretty spectacular action set-pieces in superhero movies, just in this year alone we’ve seen some standout ones, but we haven’t seen anything like Doctor Strange. All of those adjectives and descriptions that have been thrown around since the trailer, “trippy”, “InceptionX10” “Ditko by way of Escher” are all true, so it’s no wonder that we’re running out of ways to describe it. But this isn’t just a film of cool cinematic visuals, this is Derrickson playing with dimensions of space and time in a way we haven’t seen another director do in live-action. These are cool visuals with a rule-book that’s every bit as fascinating to hear the characters discuss as it is to see them. The magic in this film never just becomes characters shooting energy beams at each other, but is built on a more sci-fi principle that sorcerers pull energy from different dimensions and this energy comes with a cost. The cost of magic is a theme that runs throughout the film, leading to some surprising elements of darkness. Even with this newfound darkness that is obviously a result of Derrickson’s horror background, Marvel has an unfortunate tendency to shortchange their dramatic beats by immediately positioning a humorous one right after, but it’s less egregious here than in Civil War and ultimately does little damage to a strong film. Doctor Strange shows Marvel’s growing confidence with the weirdness of their universe, and while not every comedic beat works, it does feel more earned and like a celebration of the source material, than the “please like me” self-mockery some of the other films have employed in their efforts to appeal the widest of general audiences.

Doctor Strange is one of Marvel’s best films, a phrase that gets thrown around with every new Marvel Studios release, but this time it’s true. Doctor Strange manages to stay high-energy while still delivering the emotional character beats we want from these films. Even more impressive is that the film doesn’t hesitate to go deep into the comic mythology, introducing something in the last act that I’d guessed would be saved for a post-credit scene, and handling it with respect to character motivations on all sides. Marvel did right by hiring an experienced filmmaker who’s worked in the industry long enough to develop his own sensibilities. Scott Derrickson has become just as integral to the development of the MCU as Joss Whedon was and James Gunn is, and with luck he’ll be keeping magic alive in the MCU for a long time to come.

Grade: A-

*There are 2 post-credit sequences.

Monday, October 31, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 31: Pumpkinhead (1988)

(dir. Stan Winston)

United Artists/MGM

When a father loses his son to a group of careless young adults, he raises the demon Pumpkinhead to exact his vengeance.

Special effects wizard Stan Winston only directed two feature films, Pumpkinhead and A Gnome Named Gnorm. The latter I haven’t seen and probably never will, but if the former is any indication of Winston’s skills as a director then it’s a shame he didn’t have a longer career as a horror filmmaker. All of the careful detail and eye-catching design that Winston put into his creature creations over the years is evident in his filmmaking too. The film’s lighting and use of shadows is a character of its own, creating a film that looks like a southern gothic fairy tale. The same detail goes for his casting choices, which are a celebration of a cinematically under-represented population of America—families who are remnants of the dustbowl, backwoods folks who aren’t inbred cannibals but people just trying to get by, people with their own folklore and legends. Pumpkinhead is horror by way of Norman Rockwell.

There are so many tales of vengeance in horror movies, but Pumpkinhead never loses sight of the personal, even once the bloodshed begins. The personal stakes of the movie are clearly defined by Lance Henriksen’s performance as Ed Harley. We feel the love for his son, and we feel the pain of his death. His desperation to find a way to exact vengeance allows for the film’s quick pacing to work. Even more effective is the fact that Ed is allowed to be a firsthand witness to the vengeance he wrought, seeing and experiencing Pumpkinhead’s exacting kills on those who wronged him. Through this, Pumpkinhead allows the viewer to find sympathy in the victims. These characters aren’t simply dumb teens, but real human beings who have real emotional reactions. Winston doesn’t spend his time constructing variations of kill scenes like a slasher movie, but instead uses this time to shade these characters and explore the ramifications of irresponsibility. The monster (and what a great monster it is!) may be the selling point but the emotional stakes are what keep me coming back for repeated viewings.

Scare Factor: 2/5 Pumpkinhead has an emotional weight to its narrative, a great creature, and a compelling lore that’s a perfect cap to the Halloween season. If it’s gone under your radar then it is surely worth a watch, especially on tonight of all nights. Happy Halloween!

And that’s it for this year! Thanks for reading and if this month was your introduction to the blog, be sure to stick around for full reviews of this fall’s awards contenders and blockbusters.

Lastly, if you’ve yet to get your fill of horror, I co-wrote a list of The 100 Best Horror Movies of the 2000s (so far) so be sure to check it out and browse the site!:

Sunday, October 30, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 30: Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

(dir. John D. Hancock)

Paramount Pictures
*First time viewing

Jessica, recently released from a mental institution, moves to an island farmhouse with her husband and their mutual friend, only to find a mysterious woman already occupying the house…and perhaps the very town itself.

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is a frayed nerved ending of a film and I loved every minute of it. Despite a title reminiscent of a C-level 80s slasher movie, Hancock’s film is a haunting portrait of mental illness with a supernatural tinge. In many ways, it can be seen as the forebearer to the indie horror circuit today with their focus on interpersonal relationships, subdued horror, sense of dread, and ambiguity. Hancock’s film is far ahead of its time and completely unlike its contemporaries, so much so that it’s almost jarring how modern it feels in the midst of its early 70s trappings. Like David Robert Mitchell or Jennifer Kent, Hancock was not a horror director and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death was his only film in the genre. As a result, this film’s horror is unique and powerful, driven by a specific vision instead of catering to a demand or fad.

Zohra Lampert’s performance as Jessica is remarkable (she’s also very reminiscent of Rebecca Hall). The film juxtaposes her inner monologues with her reaction and actions, making for moments of ominous tension. She smiles and laughs while inside she wonders if the others around her see what she sees, if she’s going mad, and if her husband is still in love with her or the strange woman, Emily, that they’ve allowed to reside with them. Stephen King has cited this film as one of his favorites and the contrast between what is said and what is thought is featured prominently through Jack Torrance’s characterization in The Shining. Mariclare Costello is equally captivating as Emily, the woman who plays with the emotions of the house’s occupants and who may also be a vampire of sorts. What’s so great about Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is that so much of the horror could be real or a result of Jessica’s failing mental health, giving every action an extra layer of meaning. The film plays up these moments with jarring moments of music and extreme close-ups that create disorienting effect similar to what Jessica herself must be experiencing. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death isn’t just a film where the story is fascinating but where the production is equally attention-grabbing. The film’s sad, haunting beauty allows for a horror that’s deeply human.

Scare Factor: 4/5 Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is quiet, unnerving horror that feels extremely modern in its vision and lasting effect. It’s perfectly situated to become a new favorite of mine and hopefully a film that will increase in viewership.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 29: The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

(dir. Wes Craven)

Vanguard Monarch Releasing Corporation
*First time viewing

A family on their way to California is stranded in the Nevada desert and attacked by a disfigured family of cannibals.

Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes has long remained a blind spot in my horror knowledge, largely because I’m such a fan of Alexandre Aja’s 2006 remake that I never felt all that compelled to seek out the original, faux pas that may be. Upon watching this film it’s clear how much of a remake Aja’s film is, with the 2006 following this film beat for beat with only a few new additions. What’s most surprising about Craven’s film is how tame the on-screen violence is, particularly given its original X rating. Yes, the exact actions that make up the violence are gruesome, but Craven never lingers on it and the film's gore is quite modest.  As his follow-up to The Last House on the Left (another of Craven’s that I’ve only seen the remake of) I fully expected a film as steeped in controversy as that previous film.

While The Hills Have Eyes may not as explicit as expected, the deaths and ramifications are still surprising—there’s nothing sacred about family, religion, or childhood innocence in this film. Not only do a mother’s prayers go unheard, but she also dies slowly and painfully. Already we can see Craven toying with the emotional and thematic stakes of horror instead of just the visceral elements. While he would learn to marry these elements better as his career progressed, the stepping stones are clearly placed here. What’s also interesting is how much of an affect this film had on the future of horror and particularly the boom of movies featuring inbred cannibal families and road breakdowns leading to doom. From the Wrong Turn series to the majority of Rob Zombie’s films, there’s a clear reverence in both style and language to Craven's Hills Have Eyes.

Scare Factor: 2/5 I prefer Aja’s version, but it’s important to understand where that vision came from and if I'd seen this version first it may have had more of an impact. The theme about the savagery of man on both a large and small scale is just as impactful within the frame of post-Vietnam as it is in the frame of the War on Terror. There’s an eternal resonance to Craven’s ideas here, and The Hills Have Eyes works as a horror movie version of Cain and Abel where no one comes out morally clean.

Friday, October 28, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 28: The Lost Boys (1987)

(dir. Joel Schumacher)

Warner Bros.
Two brothers move to a new town and discover it has a serious vampire problem.

In the 80s, the vampire movie had mostly fallen out of fashion, likely deemed too archaic in a genre run by mask-clad slashers and the gruesome deaths of sexy teenagers. The vampire, which had ruled so much of horror cinema prior to the 80s, had become too tied to period pieces starring old men with European accents. 1985’s Fright Night found a way to modernize the vampire slightly, but Fright Night was never sexy in the sense of the MTV generation and its vampire was still an older man. The Lost Boys re-purposed the vampire by way of the Peter Pan mythos and gave us youthful vampires with sex appeal whose need to drink blood came secondary to living life dangerously. These vampires, led by Kiefer Sutherland’s iconic David, modernized the vampire by making them rock stars instead of counts, by placing them in sunken hotels instead of castles. There’s a rebel appeal to the vampires of The Lost Boys and the entire movie’s aesthetic revolves around this rebellious idea to bring the appeal of vampirism back into focus for a nascent millennial generation infatuated with never growing up.

The Lost Boys exists under the shadow of Jim Morrison. From the film’s opening featuring “People Are Strange,” the poster of Morrison in the vampires’ lair, and even the look of Michael Emerson shows a reverence to Morrison. The film lacks his poetry, and perhaps even the complexity of his spirit, but there’s a purpose to his specter over the film. The near constant allusions suggest that lives like Morrison’s could have been led longer, eternally even, through vampirism—that Morrison’s zest for life is something unable to be contained by mortality and that only through immortality can greatness be achieved. This idea has an almost subliminal effect on the film’s 80s cool factor but the very idea of it is in juxtaposition with the fact that David and his vampires waste their time in an effort to find thrills, suggesting the film’s real message and theme that it’s mortality that keeps people grounded.

Joel Schumacher gets a bad rap so often that it’s easy to forget how effortlessly entertaining he can make movies when he’s on the right project. So many of his traits and flourishes from wild camera angles, crane shots, flamboyant costumes, and general cheesiness are on display in The Lost Boys and they all make for welcome elements. 60% of what makes The Lost Boys work is its style which could easily lend itself to a musical. In fact, there’s a very musical nature to the film with its heavily detailed locations and set pieces, and a costume design that mixes a wide range of styles and periods. The frequent reprise of Gerard McMann’s excellent “Cry Little Sister” adds to the film’s theatrical element. The other 40% of this film’s appeal is its likable cast. Corey Haim, Corey Feldman, and Jamison Newlander’s side story involving their investigation into the vampires may sharply contrast with addiction metaphor Jason Patric’s Michael faces, yet somehow this blend of more kid-friendly horror aspects within an R-rated, teen/young adult centric movie is what makes the film such an interesting time capsule. The Lost Boys draws a wide circle and thus appeals to diverse range of moviegoers. While this may hamper some of its thematics, The Lost Boys is such an entertaining movie, so defined by the period it was made, that it’s really hard not fall in love with it.

Scare Factor: 1/5 There’s nothing scary about The Lost Boys, but it’s a constantly entertaining slice of 80s pop culture. For fans of vampire mythos it’s also an interesting look at how it changed that particular subgenre and led to the teenage-centric vampire stories that have gotten so much play in the 21st century.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

31 Days of Horror- Day 27: The Prowler (1981)

(dir. Joseph Zito)

*First time viewing

35 years after a double-murder at a graduation dance in the aftermath of WWII, the killer seemingly returns to wreak havoc in a trail left in blood and roses.

The Prowler is another B-movie 80s slash semi-classic that’s been on my radar for years but didn’t get around to watching until this week. Zito, who would later go on to direct Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, goes through most of the familiar slasher beats with a group of young college kids serving as carving boards for an army combat uniform clad, pitchfork carrying killer. Effects legend Tom Savini delivers a brutal series of kills, culminating in an explosive finale of blood. The kills scenes become adrenaline shots in a somewhat sleepy film. The story itself is intriguing, backed up by a post-WWII prologue that gives the film a sense of history. But as intriguing as the mystery is, the pacing is slow, consisting of long stretches between moments of horror and mystery. Much of the film is driven by wholesome final girl, Pam (who may be one of the most likable final girls) and her love interest, (a cardboard box) Deputy Mark London. The film stalls as they attempt to investigate the series of murders by wandering through dark spaces for what seems like unnecessarily long stretches of time, particularly considering the reveal which I'll touch on momentarily.

Even when The Prowler’s pacing suffers, it’s obvious that Zito is a director who stands head and shoulders above many of his slasher movie contemporaries. The production value in this film is unmistakable and while it may have been made for cheap, it never looks cheap and that's key to this movie's lasting appeal. Zito’s lighting and careful framing is noticeable within the first 15 minutes, and The Prowler truly is a beauty to look at. For the most part The Prowler works…until we reach the conclusion which may be one of the weirdest (and not in a good way) endings to a slasher movie I’ve seen. There are Scooby-Doo episodes with better wrap-ups, and explorations into character motivations. It’s so utterly weird that I can’t help but think a major chunk of the film was cut out. Endings may not make a movie, but when it comes to slasher films that tend to be distinguishable because of them, The Prowler unfortunately deflates before the credits roll, and a Carrie-esque dream sequence doesn't do a bit to help matters..

Scare Factor: 1/5 The Prowler is mostly enjoyable despite a WTF ending, and while it won’t create any nightmares it’s worth watching for Savini’s work alone.