ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP (2019) – Fun Sequel Provides Another Gory Good Time

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It’s been ten years since ZOMBIELAND (2009), the high-octane zombie horror/comedy which starred Jessie Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin, which makes its sequel, ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP (2019) a long time coming.

I really liked ZOMBIELAND when I first saw it at the theaters. The humor was snarky, the screenplay creative, and the laughs frequent. But upon subsequent viewings over the last decade I’ve enjoyed it less as the humor hasn’t held up all that well. So, I can’t say I was chomping at the bit to see the sequel.

That being said, ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP is actually pretty entertaining, and after a slow opening, it picks up speed and continues to get better all the way up to its strong conclusion. If you’re a fan of the original, you’ll definitely enjoy this one, and even if you haven’t seen the first ZOMBIELAND, you still might like this movie, as its comedy and story aren’t really contingent on having seen the first film.

It’s been ten years since we last saw Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Tallahasse (Woody Harrelson), Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), and they’re still navigating their way through the zombie apocalypse. When the movie opens, they arrive at a place where they feel safe, the White House.

I’m just going to interject here for a moment. One of the reasons this sequel gets off to a slow start is that like lots of other movies, it gets done in by its trailers. There are a lot of gags thrown our way early on, but nearly all of them were already revealed in the film’s trailers. And while this is no fault of the movie, it’s still a thing. There were a lot of gags throughout this movie that would have been funnier had I not seen them already. The good news is there were still plenty of other gags that I hadn’t seen.

Now, back to our story.

Columbus and Wichita have been involved in a relationship over the last ten years, and it’s gotten serious, so much so that Columbus proposes to her, which catches her off guard and freaks her out, and so she declines. Meanwhile, Little Rock is pining for someone her own age. When she meets that someone, a former student from Berkeley, (Avan Jogia), she up and runs off with him.

Worried for her sister, Wichita sets out to find Little Rock, and of course Columbus and Tallahassee join her, and the rest of the film, which all works very well and gets better and better as it goes along, is the story of their search for Little Rock, and their interactions with the people they meet along the way.

One of the reasons ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP works as well as it does is the same team who worked on the first movie is back for this one. The four main actors all returned, as well as director Ruben Fleischer, and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, along with newcomer Dave Callaham.

Fleischer, who also directed VENOM (2018), gives this one the same visual flair as the first movie, including the creative and often humorous zombie kills. Reese amd Wernick also wrote the DEADPOOL movies, and like those movies and the first ZOMBIELAND, the humor is often— biting. Actually, less so in ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP, as more often than not the jokes are just plain zany.

As I said, the film gets off to a slow start, and that’s largely because even though I like the four main characters, seeing them interact again in pretty much the same way as the original movie wasn’t anything new, but as soon as Little Rock hits the road, and the story becomes a new one, things get better. And the film is definitely helped by the addition of some new characters.

Zoey Deutch nearly steals the show as Madison, a ditzy blonde who Columbus saves in a mall, and who for a while becomes his new girlfriend. She’s hilarious in all her scenes, and one of the reasons is she transcends the dumb blonde cliché, and really comes off as a genuine person. Plus she’s very funny.

And Rosario Dawson, as she always is, is excellent as Nevada, and she shares some fun scenes with Tallahassee.

The four principals are all back. Jesse Eisenberg as the snarky Columbus, and his “rules” and ongoing commentary and narration while not as refreshing as they were the first time around, are still generally entertaining.

Speaking of which, Woody Harrelson remains fun to watch as Tallahassee, and of the four, he has some of the best moments in the movie, although I wondered what happened to his love of Twinkies, a running gag from the first movie that is absent here.

I wanted more Emma Stone. As Wichita, she’s on-screen as much as her co-stars, but Stone has simply done so much in the last decade, I wanted this story to revolve more around her character. Sadly, it does not.

And while the story does revolve around Little Rock, Abigail Breslin probably has the least impact here of the original four stars.

One of the “surprises” in the first ZOMBIELAND was the secret cameo by Bill Murray, in a sequence where Columbus actually kills the comedian, mistaking him for a zombie. That gag does come up here in the sequel, and this time the “surprise” happens during the end credits, so don’t leave once the credits roll. Stick around for the extra scene.

I had a lot of fun watching ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP. Its gags are lively and frequent, and its story is one that gets better as it goes along, building to a conclusion that actually gets a bit suspenseful.

In the mood for a bloody good time at the movies? If you don’t mind nonstop messy zombie kills, you’ll enjoy ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP.

It may not have been the most necessary sequel, but it takes what worked best in the first movie and lays it all out there again, telling a new story, that while not as refreshing as the first film, is still a gory good time.

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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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A QUIET PLACE (2018) – Smart Horror Movie Riveting and Scary

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Talk about quiet horror!

Shh! No yelling! This is A QUIET PLACE.

A QUIET PLACE is a new horror movie by director John Krasinski, known mostly for his recurring role as Jim Halpert on the comedic TV show THE OFFICE (2005-2013) starring Steve Carell. Krasinski both directs and stars here, along with his real-life wife Emily Blunt.

A QUIET PLACE is a simple thriller that nonetheless works well.  Its tagline, “If they hear you, they hunt you,” sums up the film perfectly.

It’s yet another horror movie about an apocalypse, as this time it’s strange violent creatures that roam the countryside preying on human beings. They’re unstoppable and they’re hungry.  They’re also blind. To make up for their lack of sight, they possess incredible hearing, and thus that’s how they hunt. It’s exactly as the film’s tagline says, if they hear you they hunt you.  So, to survive, you have to be awfully quiet.

It’s kind of a silly premise, when you think about it, that these creatures would have made it this far without being stopped, but that being said, there’s nothing silly about the rest of A QUIET PLACE. It’s a solid thriller throughout.

A QUIET PLACE basically follows one family trying to survive among these creatures. They live in silence in their farmhouse.  There’s the father Lee (John Krasinski), mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt), teen daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) who happens to be deaf, and younger son Marcus (Noah Jupe). They live in mortal fear of the creatures, having lost their youngest son to one of them in the film’s pre-credit sequence.

They’re also quite resourceful, devising a system to communicate with lights and creating an undergound sound proof room. But with three of these creatures living in the vicinity of their farm, they need to be.  And, oh yeah.  Evelyn is pregnant and is about to give birth. So much for a quiet place!

A QUIET PLACE possessed the same tone as another recent apocalyptic horror movie, IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017), a movie I liked a lot. The big difference between the two is the threat was never defined in IT COMES AT NIGHT while here in A QUIET PLACE the threat is made known at the outset.

The creatures here reminded me of things found in the CLOVERFIELD universe. In fact, for a time, Paramount considered making this movie a part of the CLOVERFIELD franchise, which would have made perfect sense. The chilling scenes in the cornfields were also reminiscent of similar scenes in M. Night Shyamalan’s SIGNS (2002).  That being said, A QUIET PLACE isn’t derivative of these films. It stands on its own.

A QUIET PLACE starts off— well, quiet, and after a jarring pre-credit scene moves slowly for a bit before really picking up steam during its second act.  There are some really suspenseful scenes in this one. The centerpiece and the most intense scene by far is the entire birthing sequence when Emily Blunt’s Evelyn is trying to give birth while there’s a creature pursuing her.  Scary stuff!  And I loved every minute of it!

As I said, early on, things are really quiet, as the characters need to be silent, and with a minimum of dialogue, very little happening on the soundtrack, it made for a very different kind of viewing for a while. All the folks in the audience munching on popcorn seemed to stop and the theater got really silent.  Some of the younger audience members, teenagers, couldn’t contain themselves and felt the urge to shout out comments every once in a while, but once things heated up in the second half, they fell frighteningly silent.

I really enjoyed A QUIET PLACE.  The acting was superb.  John Krasinski is solid as Lee Abbott, the caring dad who will stop at nothing to protect his family.

I thought Emily Blunt gave the best performance in the film as mom Evelyn Abbott. Like the rest of the family, she’s haunted by the death of their youngest son.

Millicent Simmonds, deaf in real life, is excellent as Regan, the daughter who has issues with her father, since she believes he blames her for her little brother’s death. And Noah Jupe, who we saw in last year’s WONDER (2017) as Auggie’s friend Jack Will, makes for a very frightened Marcus Abbott.

A QUIET PLACE has a smart screenplay by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, and John Krasinski. Its story is frightening throughout, and its characters likable and believable. It’s not perfect. I thought it was slow-going at first, and its resolution, the steps taken by the Abbotts to combat the creatures, made me scratch my head in disbelief that no one else had thought of this before.

John Krasinski does a terrific job directing as well. The early scenes, though slow-paced, take full advantage of sound, or lack thereof.  With a nearly silent soundtrack during its first half, all sounds are magnified and used to full effect.  And once the film takes off during its second half, the suspense is pretty much nonstop and a heck of a lot of fun.

A QUIET PLACE is a high quality horror movie, the kind of film like last year’s GET OUT (2017) that helps raise the bar for the horror genre.

It’s my favorite horror movie of the year so far.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: VIRAL (2016)

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Normally In The Spooklight we look at classic horror movies, but every once in a while I like to shake things up a bit and examine something more contemporary.

Up today, VIRAL (2016), a horror flick that’s now available on Netflix Streaming, which happens to be an easy way to catch horror titles that don’t receive a theatrical release. Some of these are quite good. VIRAL tells the story of two teenage sisters trying to survive during an outbreak of a deadly disease that turns people into murderous killers.

Sound familiar?  Of course it does!  That’s because apocalyptic movies are all the rage these days.  And VIRAL is nothing that hasn’t been done before, nor is it better than other similarly themed apocalyptic horror movies of recent years, but it does have some nice things going for it, which is why today it’s in the spooklight.

Teen sisters Emma (Sofia Black-D’Elia) and Stacey Drakeford (Analeigh Tipton) have recently moved into a new neighborhood with their parents, although their mom is spending a lot of time away from home, and we learn later their dad Michael (Michael Kelly) cheated on their mom, and the move into a new home is an attempt at a new beginning, something their mom is having a difficult time with.  But their dad is around and teaches at their high school. Awkward!

A strange virus has been reported in the news that has been overtaking the world, and when it arrives in their neighborhood, the entire area is quarantined, and Martial law is declared, but not before Michael races to the airport to find his wife who has just arrived home from her trip.  He tells Emma and Stacey to stay in their house and not to let anyone in.  Of course, being teenage girls, they don’t listen to their father, especially Stacey, who’s the rebellious daughter.  She invites her boyfriend over, and the three of them even go off to a party.

At the party, someone arrives with the virus, and it’s at this time that they realize that in addition to making people sick, the virus also makes people crazy and aggressive.  The infected person goes on a killing rampage, and Stacey becomes infected, but Emma brings her back home anyway.  Together, with their teen neighbor Evan (Travis Trope), they spend the rest of the movie fighting to survive.

The strongest thing VIRAL has going for it is some pretty good acting.  I really enjoyed Sofia Black-D’Elia and Analeigh Tipton as sisters Emma and Stacey.  Black D’Elia doesn’t play Emma as your typical “good girl.”  Sure, she’s more responsible than her sister Stacey, but she’s not a saint.  She goes to the party when she knows she shouldn’t, and she is definitely very interested in Evan and doesn’t shy away from his advances one iota.

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Analeigh Tipton and Sofia Black-D’Elia as sisters Stacey and Emma in VIRAL (2017)

Analeigh Tipton is just as good as Stacey, the sister who is more of a rebel.  The best part about both performances and the writing behind them is that neither character is a cliché.

Travis Tope is also very good as their young neighbor Evan, who we find out likes Emma as much as she likes him.  I found their relationship in this movie refreshing.  It wasn’t forced, contrived, or didn’t try to be something it wasn’t— there wasn’t any unnecessary drama- they both like each other a lot, but unfortunately, it’s a bad time to be starting a relationship.

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Travis Trope and Sofia Black-D’Elia choose the wrong day to start dating.

The movie really focuses on these three characters, and no one else does a whole lot.  It was nice to see veteran actor Michael Kelly as their dad Michael.  He gets to play a halfway decent person for a change and actually smiles once or twice.  He’s been busy playing Kevin Spacey’s right hand man Doug Stamper for five seasons on the Netflix TV show HOUSE OF CARDS (2013-present), a dark character who is as grim as they get.

There are some decent horror scenes here.  I liked the sequence at the party, and when we see the little worm-like creatures that carry the disease crawl into their victims’ bodies it’s a pretty neat effect.  But the horror never really explodes to levels where it becomes memorable.

VIRAL was directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, and for two-thirds of this movie they had me.  Initially, I was interested in the plot, and when the virus takes hold of the town, the suspense rose and the film reached a much higher level, but strangely the intensity wanes during the film’s final act.  Perhaps there wasn’t enough budget to film a worthy conclusion, but the natural expectation is for our three characters to be attacked by the worm-carrying murderous hosts who have overtaken the town.  But this never happens.  As such, the final third of the film pales in comparison to what came before it.

Parts of VIRAL reminded me of IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017), a recent horror film I liked a lot.  IT COMES AT NIGHT is also about an apocalyptic event, but it’s an event that’s never defined in the movie. But IT COMES AT NIGHT is a better film than VIRAL because it’s grittier and far more suspenseful.

Joost and Schulman also directed PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 (2011) and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 (2012).  I liked VIRAL better than these two PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies, but that’s not saying much.

Barbara Marshall and Christopher Landon wrote the screenplay.  They do a great job with the dialogue and the characterizations, and the idea they have for the virus is a good one, although the concept of a virus that turns people into murderous monsters reminded me a lot of the plot in both versions of THE CRAZIES (1973 and 2010). And like THE CRAZIES, the monsters are not zombies, because they don’t have to die first before they become murderous.

What’s most lacking in the screenplay is a strong third act, which hurts, because the film slows down and it limps towards a conclusion that is hardly memorable.

VIRAL is well-acted, well-directed, and even well-written.  But ultimately it never gets as gritty or as in-your-face disturbing as this type of movie needs to be, and it definitely drops the ball in its third act when it seems to forget that it’s a horror movie.

In spite of its shortcomings, I actually liked VIRAL and wished it had been just a tad more intense.

A bit scarier and this one may have gone— viral.

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