LEADING MEN: DAVID MANNERS

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David Manners in between Karloff and Lugosi in THE BLACK CAT (1934).

Welcome to a brand new column, LEADING MEN.

Here at THIS IS MY CREATION: THE BLOG OF MICHAEL ARRUDA I already write a LEADING LADIES column where we look at the career of lead actresses in horror movies, and IN THE SHADOWS, where we look at character actors, women and men, who appeared in horror movies.

In LEADING MEN, we won’t be looking at the horror superstars, folks like Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney, Cushing, Lee, and Price, but those actors who had leading roles in horror movies and played key parts that were not character bits and who in spite of their success in these roles did not achieve superstar status.

We kick off the column with the number #1 leading man from the early Universal monster movies, David Manners. He played “John” Harker in DRACULA (1931) and the similarly dashing young hero Frank Whemple in THE MUMMY (1932) with Boris Karloff.

My favorite part of David Manners’ performances is that he took what could have been stoic wooden “leading man” love interest roles and infused these characters with some personality, which is why his characterizations in these old Universal monster films are better than most.

So, here’s a brief look at Manners’ film career, focusing mostly on his horror roles:

THE SKY HAWK (1929) – pilot (uncredited) – David Manners’ first screen appearance, an uncredited bit as a pilot, a World War I drama that also starred Manners’ future DRACULA co-star Helen Chandler.

JOURNEY’S END (1930) – 2nd Lt. Raleigh –  David Manner’s first screen credit is in this drama starring Colin Clive as an alcoholic captain trying to lead his troops in the trenches of World War I. Directed by James Whale, who would direct Clive the following year in FRANKENSTEIN (1931).

DRACULA (1931) – John Harker- Sure, Manners hams it up at times, and some of the scenes with him and Helen Chandler as Mina are among the film’s slowest, but he also enjoys some fine moments in this Universal classic. He seems genuinely annoyed with both Edward Van Sloan’s Van Helsing, as the professor continues to argue for the existence of vampires, something Harker believes is ludicrous, as well as with Lugosi’s Dracula when the vampire shows his fiancee Mina some attention. When Dracula apologizes for upsetting Mina with his stories, Manner’s Harker reacts with a very annoyted, “Stories?” as if to say when have you been finding the time to tell my fiancee stories?

THE DEATH KISS (1932) – Franklyn Drew –  Manners stars with DRACULA co-stars Bela Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan in this mystery/comedy about murder on a movie set.

THE MUMMY (1932) – Frank Whemple – Joins forces once again with Edward Van Sloan to stop another movie monster, this time it’s Boris Karloff as ImHoTep the undead mummy who returns to life and subsequently discovers his long lost love has been reincarnated as a woman named Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann). Of course, Manners’ Frank Whemple is also in love with Helen, and so once again he’s the dashing young hero who works with Van Sloan’s professor— not Van Helsing this time but Doctor Muller—to protect the young heroine from an evil monster. I prefer Manners’ performance here in THE MUMMY over his work in DRACULA as his acting is more natural in this movie.

THE BLACK CAT (1934) – Peter Allison – Manners’ turn here as mystery writer Peter Allison is probably my favorite David Manners’ performance. In this Universal classic which was the first movie to pair Boris Karloff with Bela Lugosi, the two horror superstars take on each other in this atmospheric thriller set in Hungary and featuring devil worshippers and revenge. Manners plays an American novelist on his honeymoon with his wife, and the two get caught in the crossfire between Karloff and Lugosi. Manners gets some of the best lines in the movie, most of them very humorous, and Manners pulls off this lighter take on the leading man quite nicely. My favorite Manners line is when he’s speaking of Karloff’s Hjalmar Poelzig and says, If I wanted to build a nice, cozy, unpretentious insane asylum, he’d be the man for it.  

MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD (1935) – Edwin Drood – Horror movie based on the Charles Dickens novel stars Claude Rains as an opium-addicted choirmaster with a taste for young women and murder. A financial flop.

LUCKY FUGITIVES (1936) – Jack Wycoff/Cy King –  Dual role for Manners in which he plays an author who is a dead ringer for a gangster and as such is mistakenly arrested. Manner’s final screen credit.

David Manners only had 39 screen credits, and that’s because after LUCKY FUGITIVES he retired from acting. He would go on to become a painter and a writer, publishing several novels.

He died in 1998 of natural causes at the age of 97.

For me, Manners will be forever remembered for his dashing leading man roles in the Universal horror classics DRACULA (1931), THE MUMMY (1932), and THE BLACK CAT (1934). He gave these roles personality, and they have stood the test of time and remain integral parts of these classic horror movies.

David Manners

April 30, 1901 – December 23, 1998

I hope you enjoyed this LEADING MEN column and join me again next time when we look at another leading man in the movies, especially horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

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BRIGHTBURN (2019) – Predictable Horror Superhero Tale

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What if Superman didn’t turn out to be a nice guy? If his powers made him a monster instead of a superhero?

That’s basically the premise behind BRIGHTBURN (2019), the new horror superhero movie—is there even such a thing? I guess there is now— that asks the question: if you discovered the baby you always wanted in the woods, how long would you turn a blind eye on his murderous shenanigans in the name of love? In this movie, a bit too long.

Now, this movie is not about Superman. The Man of Steel is not in this film, but the two origin stories share obvious similarities.

Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman) are struggling to have a baby, but one night, their prayers are answered, as something crash lands outside their farmhouse, and there they discover a baby boy which they decide to adopt as their own. The story jumps to a decade later where young Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) is celebrating his 12th birthday.

These are unsettling times for Brandon. He’s in middle school, going through puberty, and he’s hearing voices in his head from the ship hidden beneath his parents’ barn telling him to take on the world. In short, he’s an angry little tyke, and in this film he unleashes his anger by hurting people he deems as threat in horrific ways that include glass shards to the eye, breaking a young girl’s hand, and dropping a car to the ground in order to shatter the driver’s face. Yup, it’s a horror movie.

Brandon’s parents want to love their son, but eventually they realize they had better do something about him— you think???— but by the time they decide to take action, it may be too late.

I enjoyed BRIGHTBURN well enough, but not as much as I wanted to. The two main knocks for me against this film are that 1) it’s very predictable, and 2) there’s not a whole lot of imagination behind it.

Once the story is introduced, it’s pretty obvious what’s going to happen. You know that Brandon is bad news, and the plot unfolds in ways that offer no surprises. The screenplay by Brian and Mark Gunn offers little in the way of imagination, which is too bad because there were a lot of creative directions this one could have taken, but it doesn’t.

A scene early on in the movie where Brandon is in a science class features a discussion of bees and wasps in which it’s said that wasps are so ruthlessly busy they enslave others to raise their young, hinting of course that this may be the rationale behind Brandon’s real otherworldly parents. This notion had the potential to be something really sinister, but the film never returns to it. We learn absolutely nothing about Brandon’s real parents or where he came from.

When Brandon gives in to his evil ways, he wears a mask. Why? It’s not clearly explained and seems to be a thin excuse to tie this tale in to the superhero motif.

It also takes his parents forever to do anything about their son. They wait so long it strains credulity.

BRIGHTBURN is also another of those origin stories that gives its audience 85 minutes of mundane storytelling, only to offer much more imaginative ideas in the final 5 minutes, as if to say, this is what we have in store for you in the sequel. BRIGHTBURN would have been a better movie if some of what is shown in the last five minutes had happened midway through the film.

Director David Yarovesky tries hard to have the film earn its R rating with some graphic shots of facial mutilation, but sadly, this doesn’t really make much of an impact. There really aren’t a whole lot of memorable scenes or images in BRIGHTBURN. It’s all rather flat.

Elizabeth Banks is fine as mommy Tori Breyer. She’s hell-bent on defending her son to the last, and at times it almost seems as though she’d be okay with her son being an evil monster, but the film doesn’t take things that far.

Likewise David Denman is okay as daddy Kyle. And his big dramatic scene where he decides that enough is enough, and he takes Brandon deep into the woods to hunt, where he plans to shoot his son, is symptomatic of what’s wrong with BRIGHTBURN. On its surface, it’s a fairly dramatic and watchable sequence, but it’s not riveting, we don’t see Kyle in anguish over this decision, nor do we see him in impassioned rage that he has to save the world from his son. Nope. It’s just sort of there.

That’s how the whole movie is. It’s watchable, but it’s just sort of there.

Jackson A. Dunn is sufficiently creepy as Brandon, but that’s about it. We never really learn what Brandon is really about, nor do we know what’s going through his mind in most of his scenes.

Matt Jones, who played Badger on BREAKING BAD (2008-2013), enjoys a few lively and humorous moments in a small role as Brandon’s uncle Noah.

For a brief while, BRIGHTBURN was almost the perfect metaphor for middle school angst, both for the student and the student’s parents, but the film simply isn’t creative enough to sustain such symbolism.

BRIGHTBURN is an okay movie. It’s a horror movie because its main character can and does kill people with ease and in horrific ways, but it’s not scary nor even suspenseful. It’s a superhero movie in appearance only, as Brandon dons a mask and flies around, and of courses possesses super powers. But there’s no depth here, no conversations about the responsibilities that go with great power, no human interactions which shape Brandon’s world outlook. There’s just anger, aggression, and murder, and from a protagonist we know little about.

And we know nothing of Brandon’s otherworldly parents, but based on his actions in this movie, I’m guessing they’re more like the Predator species than Jor El.

There’ll be no inspirational daddy videos at the Fortress of Solitude here.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: GREEN ROOM (2015)

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When this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, GREEN BOOK (2018) was first released, I remember thinking, gee, that title is awfully close to GREEN ROOMI wouldn’t want to be that person who mistakenly chose to watch GREEN ROOM when they meant to watch GREEN BOOK. They’re two very different movies. The person making that mistake would be in for quite a shock.

GREEN ROOM is a violent, visceral thriller that got under my skin and provided me with 95 minutes of horrifically intense entertainment.

GREEN ROOM is the story of a punk rock band whose members agree to accept a gig at a neo-Nazi skinhead bar. Their performance doesn’t go all that well— no, they’re not attacked because they played bad music, but they do run afoul of murder when they walk into the green room and find two people standing over the body of a dead woman, a knife jammed into her head. Before they can react, they are locked in the room and held hostage by bouncers at the bar.

The bar’s owner Darcy (Patrick Stewart) arrives with a plan to make the crime go away, a plan that includes pinning the murder on the visiting band. This doesn’t sit well with the band, who decide to fight back, which is no easy task since they’re surrounded by people with weapons and vicious dogs who enjoy ripping people’s throats out.

What follows is a brutal and  suspenseful tale of the band’s fight for survival against a horde of murderous neo-Nazis led by the level-headed Mr. Darcy.

I really enjoyed GREEN ROOM. I was hooked within the film’s first few minutes. Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier immediately captures the personality and mood of the punk rock band, known as The Ain’t Rights. The opening plays like a rock documentary, and once the band gets to the skinhead bar, things become sketchy first and then downright deadly.

And once that happens, once they discover the body of the murdered girl and get trapped inside the green room, all bets are off. What follows is an intense thrill ride that will give you sweaty palms for the remainder of the film.

GREEN ROOM features the late Anton Yelchin in the lead role as Pat, the band member who takes the lead in their fight for survival. In real life, Yelchin tragically died in a bizarre accident in which his Jeep Grand Cherokee rolled down his steep driveway and pinned him against a wall, killing him, on June 19, 2016. Yelchin was a tremendous talent and had already enjoyed enormous success in his young career, playing Chekov in the rebooted STAR TREK movies starring Chris Pine,  and he played Charley Brewster in the remake of FRIGHT NIGHT (2011) and Kyle Reese in TERMINATOR SALVATION (2009).

Yelchin is excellent here as Pat. At first, he’s not the character you expect to become the leader, especially since early on he almost dies, but his resilient spirit grows as the story goes along.

Imogen Poots is also memorable as Amber, the young woman who’s found standing over the dead girl with the knife in her head. I like Poots a lot. Interestingly enough, she also starred in the remake of FRIGHT NIGHT as Amy.

Also in the cast is Joe Cole, who plays John Shelby on the TV show PEAKY BLINDERS (2013-17). I also enjoyed Macon Blair as Gabe, one of the bouncers who actually develops a conscious as the plot unfolds.

But for my money the best performance in GREEN ROOM belong to Captain Jean-Luc Picard himself, Patrick Stewart as club owner Darcy. Stewart, of course, played the Enterprise captain on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION (1987-1994) and in the four NEXT GENERATION STAR TREK movies. And, he’s set to reprise the role of Captain Picard in an upcoming Star Trek TV series which is as of yet untitled. Not to mention his portrayal of Professor Charles Xavier in the X-MEN movies, a role he played most recently in LOGAN (2017) with Hugh Jackman.

As Darcy in GREEN ROOM, Stewart is calm and cool, the complete opposite of everyone else in the movie. As such, Stewart makes Darcy a chilling adversary, someone who doesn’t think twice about the deadly decisions he makes. He’s cold, calculating, and ultimately a bad ass.

For me, watching Stewart was the best part of GREEN ROOM.

There are also some truly frightening scenes in this one, from hands being grotesquely mutilated to deathly choke holds, to murder with box cutters, to man-eating dogs. Gulp!

This is one movie you don’t want to watch on a full stomach. Yet, it is much more than just a gore fest. In fact, it’s not very gory at all. Most of the violence occurs in quick fashion in swiftly edited scenes, which only adds to the frenetic pace of the film.

Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier also creates sympathetic characters who you care about and want to see survive, feelings that are heightened by the fact that the chances of their survival are so slim.

GREEN ROOM is a first-rate thriller and horror movie. No, it’s not the one that won Best Picture—that’s GREEN BOOK— but it is the one that will leave you green with revulsion.

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HOTEL MUMBAI (2019) – Brutal Re-Telling of Mumbai Terrorist Attack

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In 2008, terrorists stormed the famed Taj Hotel in Mumbai, India, killing and wounding hundreds of people. With only a miniscule police force outside the hotel, and special forces units hours away, it fell upon the hotel staff to protect the hotel’s guests. HOTEL MUMBAI (2019) tells their story.

Unfortunately, it also tells the story of the actual terrorists, as the film attempts to point out that the terrorists were young men who were obviously duped by their unseen leader to carry out these vicious attacks. This part of the movie, although minor, doesn’t work as well as the rest.

The best part of HOTEL MUMBAI is the stories it tells of the victims hiding inside the hotel.

Arjun (Dev Patel) is married, has a young son, and his wife is pregnant with their next child. He works at the hotel, and money is tight, and so he desperately needs this job. When he forgets his shoes, he’s scolded by the head chef Oberoi (Anupam Kher) and told to go home, but he begs to stay, and Oberoi relents and offers him a spare pair of shoes in his office.

David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) are a multicultural couple. He’s American and she’s Indian. They’re at the hotel with their baby and baby’s nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey).

Once the terrorists storm the hotel, head chef Oberoi is the one who pretty much organizes the resistance, helping to move as many guests as possible into the most secure area of the hotel.

As the terrorists move freely about the building, with special forces hours away, the story becomes more harrowing as the guests gradually begin to run out of options. There are only so many places they can hide, and the gunmen, armed with assault rifles and grenades, continue their onslaught with frightening persistence.

The scenes of death and carnage in HOTEL MUMBAI are brutal and difficult to watch. Some have suggested that these scenes border on the exploitative. I wouldn’t go that far, but I will say that watching the gunmen march boldly through the hotel killing innocent people indiscriminately, taking their time about it because law enforcement was nowhere in sight, was wince inducing. But it also bolsters the story. The film makes clear the awful fate that awaits the guests if they’re spotted by the terrorists.

HOTEL MUMBAI works best when following the plight of the survivors, the frightened guests, and the brave hotel staff who did their best to protect them. Writer/director Anthony Maras and screenwriter John Collee flesh out the characters in a relatively brief time. I really cared for all of these folks, which made the movie that more effective.

And the cast also helps. Oscar nominee Dev Patel comes closest to playing a lead character, as the main story is framed around Arjun. Patel, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for LION (2016), and who also starred in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008) and CHAPPIE (2015), is as expected excellent here. Arjun is both a sympathetic and very brave character, putting his life on the line for the hotel guests.

Armie Hammer, who we just saw in ON THE BASIS OF SEX (2018) where he played Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s husband Martin, is very good here as David. The scenes where he makes his way back up to his room to rescue his baby and Sally are extremely compelling.

Nazanin Boniadi is equally as good as David’s wife Zahra. She too has to brave the bloody corridors of the hotel to find her family. And Tilda Cobham-Hervey, who spends most of the movie protecting Zahra’s and David’s baby is excellent as the terrified Sally.

I also enjoyed Jason Isaacs, who recently played Captain Gabriel Lorca on STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (2017-18), and who also starred in the impressive horror movie A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016). Here he plays a Russian operative named Vasili who’s a guest at the hotel and befriends Zahra once the terrorists attack. Not only does he get some of the best lines in the film, but he’s the only character in the movie inside the hotel with any kind of military experience.

My favorite performance in the film however probably belongs to Anupam Kher as head chef Oberoi. He makes Oberoi the ultimate professional, and when he’s tasked with protecting the guests, he accepts the challenge and does what he can. What I particularly liked about this character and Kher’s performance is that he doesn’t suddenly become an action hero. He’s a chef, and what he can do to help these people is limited. The help he can offer is based on his knowledge of the hotel, knowing where the safest place is to keep the guests, and also his cool demeanor as head chef serves him well in keeping the people calm.

Kher was also memorable in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012) and THE BIG SICK (2016). He’s a character actor who makes his mark every time I see him in a movie, even if he’s playing a relatively small role.

As I said, HOTEL MUMBAI also portrays the terrorists as young men pretty much brainwashed by their unseen leader who speaks to them on the phone and coldly encourages them to kill as many people as possible, all in the name of Allah. While the film should be commended for taking this approach— it’s always a good idea to present as many sides to a story as possible— it didn’t really win me over. Watching them brutally murder people, I didn’t really want to know anything about them, nor did I feel sympathy for them. In fact, I probably would have enjoyed the movie more had it not featured any background on these killers at all. Intellectually, I understood the approach, but emotionally I rebelled against it.

The film does a better job pointing out that the Muslim terrorists do not represent all Muslims. Zahra is also Muslim, and her confrontation with one of the terrorists, one of the most riveting scenes in the movie, is symbolic of this difference.

The other subplot that also really works is the small security force which realizes that even though they are outmanned and outgunned, they have to do something to fight back, and so they venture back into the hotel in an attempt to commandeer the security cameras so they can at least get a fix on the terrorists’ positions inside the hotel. Theirs is also a harrowing story.

HOTEL MUMBAI is a riveting and oftentimes disturbing re-telling of the deadly terrorist attack on the Taj Hotel. I hesitate to say I enjoyed this film because it’s not a comfortable movie to sit through, but it succeeds in telling its edge-of-your seat story of a small group of hotel guests and staff who banded together to fight for their survival against a merciless group of vicious gunmen.

While I may not have “enjoyed” it, I highly recommend it.

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US (2019) – Ambitious Horror Movie Never Seems Real

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I was really looking forward to seeing US (2019).

Written and directed by Jordan Peele, the man who gave us GET OUT (2017), one of my favorite movies from that year, US boasted creepy trailers and advanced critical acclaim.

Imagine my disappointment when the end credits rolled and I found myself realizing I had just sat through— a dud.

Yep, I didn’t like US all that much. Didn’t like it at all.

The film opens creepily enough. It’s 1986, and a young girl is with her family at a beach boardwalk amusement park. The girl walks away and enters a house of mirrors on her own, where she has a bizarre and frightening experience. The film switches to present day where the girl Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is now an adult with her own family: husband Gabe (Winston Duke), teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and younger son Jason (Evan Alex).

They’re a normal enough family and early on they’re fun to watch. On vacation, they decide to go to the same beach boardwalk where Adelaide had her traumatic experience as a kid. How weird is that? I don’t think I’d take my kids to a place that held such haunting memories for me, but anyway, throughout the vacation Adelaide can’t help but feel that something bad is going to happen to her family. Of course she feels this!  She’s at the same place where she had her childhood trauma! Duh!

Her fears become reality when at night four mysterious figures show up outside their door, figures that look like another family.  Young Jason nails it when he says “They’re us.”  Because that’s who they are, strange zombielike doppelgängers of the four family members.

And it’s at this point in the film, where it introduces its horrific elements, where it should take off and soar, where for me, it simply all unravels, and I lost interest.

Why?

Not for reasons usually associated with a bad horror movie.

For starters, US is a very ambitious movie, in terms of theme and symbolic images. It plays like a college thesis. There’s a lot going on, but for me, its undoing is a lack of believability and ultimately a lack of emotion. It’s a rare thing for me to like a movie that doesn’t move me emotionally, and US didn’t move me one iota, mostly because the threat never seemed real to me, and so I never was full on board with the plight of these characters.

Sure, I appreciated what the film was saying, I understood why it was saying it, but I didn’t believe the way it was saying it. Basically, there are two versions of this family, and as the film later shows, two versions of a lot of families, and when the alternate Adelaide responds to the question of who is she with the answer, “We’re Americans,” you get the point of the two Americas. The alternate Americans are dressed in red, not a friendly color these days. I get the symbolism.

But the story as told in US made little sense to me. The story of these people’s origins never resonated with me as anything other than a symbolic treatise on our modern-day culture. As such, it distracted me from the proceedings and took away from the horror elements. The entire time the family was fighting for their lives I felt disconnected from them because their story played out less like the events in a movie and more like the pages of a college thesis paper.

So, there’s a lot to digest here, and for people who like to analyze movies, US is the film for them. For people who enjoy horror movies, I’d wager to guess those folks might be a little disappointed. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that the only good horror movie is a dumb horror movie. I love smart movies. But US tries too hard to be intellectual at the expense of being emotional.

The acting is excellent. Lupita Nyong’o excels as both Adelaide and the very chilling alternate version of her. Elizabeth Moss is equally as good as family friend Kitty and her evil doppelgänger.

Winston Duke is fun to watch as the relaxed amiable dad Gabe, although his “twin” is less effective as he lumbers around like a zombie and isn’t as frightening as some of the others. Duke and Nyong’o, who both co-starred in BLACK PANTHER (2018), make for a realistic couple, one of the few parts of this movie I found believable.

Shahadi Wright Joseph is very good as daughter Zora, as is Evan Alex as son Jason.

One of the reasons I liked GET OUT so much was it was both a scary horror movie and an incisive commentary on race. Here, Jordan Peele is working with a much broader canvas. He’s covering much more ground, but while US is a more ambitious film than GET OUT, it doesn’t work nearly as well. For starters, its story just seemed way too convoluted to be credible.

And since it wasn’t believable, I didn’t feel for the characters, and as a result ultimately didn’t care all that much for the movie.

And while there are plenty of creepy parts, I didn’t find US all that scary either.

I predict that I may like US more with subsequent viewings, because there is a lot to absorb. But my initial reaction to it was akin to reading a poem ripe with figurative language that told a story so unreal it distracted from its metaphors. In short, the ambitious US never convinced me that what it was saying was real.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: STEPHANIE (2017)

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Shree Crooks as STEPHANIE (2017)

STEPHANIE (2017), a horror film about a little girl facing an unknown horrific threat all by her lonesome almost works.

Almost.

What stops this flick from ultimately succeeding is a lack of courage on the part of the filmmakers to take this story to the deepest dark places it should have gone. Instead, we have a plot tweak midway through that changes everything, and the film is worse off for it.

When STEPHANIE opens, young Stephanie (Shree Crooks) is home alone, occupying herself with her imaginary stuffed animal friends, getting into mischief as any child would do left to their own devices. She attempts among other things to cook and clean on her own, running afoul of every day threats like broken glass on the floor while walking barefoot. You’ll wince even before the supernatural elements are introduced.  Just why she’s by herself we’re not exactly sure, although there seems to have been some sort of apocalyptic incident that has wiped out at the very least the population around her.

One night, as she brushes her teeth and plays in front of the bathroom mirror, she hears a strange noise coming from the darkness. She knows what it is. Evidently, there is some sort of “monster” which enters her house at times, and to escape, she has to hide and remain silent. She hears the monster foraging throughout the house, growling and sniffing for prey, and then it leaves.

Adding to the mystery there’s also a dead body in her house, Stephanie’s brother, who seems to have succumbed to whatever malady wiped out everyone else. Stephanie it appears is immune. But then one day, Stephanie’s parents return, and while she is overjoyed to see them, she suddenly wonders why they left her alone in the first place.

And it’s at this point in the movie where the plot changes, and from here on in, things just  don’t work as well because the story enters territory we’ve all seen before and any innovative freshness the film possessed earlier disappears.

Which is too bad because the first half of STEPHANIE is really, really good, and the biggest reason why is the performance by young actress Shree Crooks as Stephanie. I hesitate to give such high praise to such a young actress, but she’s so good here she’s nearly mesmerizing. Early on, when she has the run of the house, she’s fun to watch, and later when the monster invades, you share in Stephanie’s terror. Crooks does fear really well.

So, early on the story had me hooked. I wanted to know why Stephanie was alone and just what kind of monster kept breaking into her house.  And I cared enough about young Stephanie that I was ready to watch a film about just one little girl on her own having to square off against a monstrous threat.

But ultimately this isn’t the story STEPHANIE has to tell. Her parents arrive home, and the inevitable plot twist isn’t up to snuff and only serves to steer the story into familiar territory, which is far less satisfying than what had come before it. Unfortunately, when all is said and done, STEPHANIE ends up being just a standard horror movie.

Frank Grillo and Anna Torv [recently of Netflix’ MINDHUNTER (2017-19)] play Stephanie’s parents, and while there’s nothing wrong with their performances, they unfortunately appear in the film’s inferior second half.

The screenplay by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski tells two different stories, and I enjoyed the first story much better than the second. The first half of the story with Stephanie home alone works so well I was really looking forward to seeing how she was going to deal with the monster in her house, but that confrontation never happens.

Director Akiva Goldsman sets up some suspenseful scenes early on, especially when the monster invades the house. Goldsman also deserves plenty of credit for capturing such a powerful performance from such a young performer. Shree Crooks completely carries the first half of the movie all by her lonesome.

Later, when the story pivots, the scares are much more standard, the results more predictable.

STEPHANIE did not have a theatrical release and was instead marketed straight to video on demand. I saw it on Netflix.

As it stands, it’s not a bad horror movie, but based on the way it started, it had the potential to be something very special, if only the initial story had been allowed to develop.

In spite of this, Shree Crooks delivers the performance of the movie. She’s terrific throughout, and she’s the main reason to see STEPHANIE.

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CAPTIVE STATE (2019) – Science Fiction Thriller Struggles Mightily To Tell Its Story

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captive state

CAPTIVE STATE (2019) is a new science fiction thriller with some really neat ideas and a remarkable story to tell, but sadly— very sadly—- it also has a script that struggles mightily to tell it.

The movie gets off to a busy yet intriguing start with a bunch of information hurled at its audience immediately. There’s been an alien invasion which has completely overwhelmed humankind, and the governments of the world have capitulated power to these superior beings who now control the Earth.  As a result, the “haves” — people with power and money— have gotten stronger as they’ve been given positions of leadership, while the “have-nots” have gotten weaker, as they’ve been thrust into ghettos and hard-working mining jobs, which happens to be a perfect metaphor for what some say has been happening in the real world for the past few decades.

But all hope is not lost, as there are resistance fighters constantly operating in the shadows with the express purpose of taking down these all-powerful aliens. These resistance fighters believe the only thing the aliens are interested in is draining the Earth of its resources. They believe the aliens’ end game is the destruction of the planet, even if the “haves” who enjoy plenty of power now refuse to see it.

So, the plot of the movie focuses on a small band of resistant fighters in Chicago as they work on a plan to strike back at their alien oppressors, while one of the “haves,” police detective William Mulligan (John Goodman) does everything in his power to uncover this resistant cell and destroy them.

I really liked the idea behind CAPTIVE STATE. I enjoyed its story of resistance fighters trying to strike back against an all-powerful alien race which had been ruling the world for nearly a decade. I enjoyed the obvious symbolic references to what’s going on in today’s world, where people feel increasingly oppressed and powerless.

But there are far more things with CAPTIVE STATE that I didn’t like. Let’s start with the way it tells its story. The screenplay by Erica Beeney and director Rupert Wyatt seems to be purposefully confusing. Characters speak, and their meanings aren’t clear. They make phone calls and send messages in code, but the audience doesn’t know why nor do they understand the meanings.

Most of the movie is a collection of really cool looking scenes showing people slyly plotting resistance while cop William Mulligan hunts them down. It all looks good and sounds good with some effective music by Rob Simonsen, but very little of it makes sense. The writers forgot to include the audience on what’s going on. It’s one of those films where I’m sure the audience is going to spend most of the time scratching their heads rather than enjoying a suspenseful story.

It reminded me of a 1960s British spy thriller where the screenplay was purposefully obscure, or a movie which back in the old days would have been aired after midnight because prime time audiences wouldn’t have had the patience for its lack of narrative. Some folks will no doubt absolutely love CAPTIVE STATE and won’t see its narrative woes as a weakness, but for me, I prefer a story that is told in a more organized fashion than the one told here.

There are other problems as well. The biggest one for me is there wasn’t a clear protagonist. The central characters in the movie are two brothers, Gabriel Drummond (Ashton Sanders) and Rafe Drummond (Jonathan Majors) whose parents were killed by the aliens in the film’s opening moments. Rafe has become the face of the Chicago resistance, but since his character is officially dead, he lives in the shadows and is barely in the movie.

The main character is supposed to be Gabriel, the younger brother, as he’s also a person the police are interested in, as they believe he can lead them to the resistance. But even though Gabriel is on-screen more than Rafe, he’s not developed as a character either.

Then there’s cop William Mulligan as played by John Goodman, who gruffly goes through the motions hunting down resistance fighters without showing any emotion.

Speaking of those resistance fighters, there’s a whole bunch of them, none of whom we ever really get to know or care about.

Then there’s the aliens themselves, which we hardly see. When we do see them, they reminded me of the types of creatures seen in the CLOVERFIELD universe, but we really don’t see much of them at all here.

There is little that is visually stimulating or memorable in CAPTIVE STATE, nothing memorable like those huge hovering ships in DISTRICT 9 (2009), a film that did a better job telling its alien occupation story. There were also shades of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End here, with its story and theme of humans dealing with the occupation of a superior alien race, but the novel dealt with it in ways that are far superior to how it is handled in this movie.

The cast here also doesn’t do a whole lot, and a lot of the problem is the screenplay which really doesn’t develop the characters. John Goodman is okay as William Mulligan, but it is largely a one note performance. Unlike his role in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) where he knocked it out of the park playing quite the frightening character, Goodman is stuck playing a man who is purposely unemotional for reasons that become clear later in the story.

Ashton Sanders, who starred in the Oscar-winning MOONLIGHT (2016), is decent enough as Gabriel, the character who should have been the main focus here had this film had a better script. There just really aren’t any defining moments for Gabriel or ones that allow Sanders to truly shine in the role.

Jonathan Majors is allowed to do even less as older brother Rafe. There are a lot of solid actors in supporting roles here, but none of them get to do much of anything. Even Vera Farmiga can’t save the day, as her role as a mysterious prostitute has little impact while she’s on screen. Now, her character is important, as revealed later on, but that’s how a lot of this movie is. Important details are relayed after characters are gone or situations have already happened. It just doesn’t make for satisfying storytelling.

Even the end, when it’s obvious what’s happening, and what direction the plot is taking, the movie doesn’t give the audience the benefit of a satisfying conclusion. It leaves things just a bit obscure. The trouble is, what’s happening is not obscure, so why not just show the audience this instead of playing games and keeping important plot points hidden just for the sake of trying to be creative? It’s a case of trying too hard to make a thought-provoking offbeat thriller. Sometimes straightforward storytelling is just plain better.

Director Rupert Wyatt does a nice job creating quick intense scenes of resistance fighters organizing and plotting but struggles with the big-ticket items like grand cinematic sequences and building suspense. Probably the best sequence in the movie is the major caper by the resistance to attack the aliens at Soldier Field.  This sequence works well, even if its payoff isn’t all that satisfying, but other than this, there’s not a whole lot that’s memorable about this movie.

For a science fiction thriller, it’s not visually satisfying at all. As I said, there are no memorable images as found in DISTRICT 9, and the script is far inferior to the stories, dialogue, and character development found in recent science fiction films like ANNIHILATION (2018) and ARRIVAL (2016).

ANNIHILATION and ARRIVAL also had strong female leads and supporting characters. The women in CAPTIVE STATE are few and far between, and none of the major characters are women.

Rupert Wyatt also directed RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011), the first of the APES reboots, and a movie I enjoyed more than CAPTIVE STATE.

I really wanted to like CAPTIVE STATE. In fact, after its first five minutes, I was even more interested in the story it was about to tell, but what followed was a narrative that clearly struggled to move this intriguing story forward. Its characters were not developed, and as such there really wasn’t anyone for the audience to identify with or root for. And the alien threat was barely shown and hardly explored.

So, at the end of the day, while I certainly did not hate CAPTIVE STATE, I left the theater disappointed.

A better script could have made CAPTIVE STATE a captivating science fiction thriller, but it’s clear that this film did not have that script. The end result is a movie with impressive ideas and symbolism but with such a muddled narrative that its audience will be hard-pressed to enjoy them.

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