LEADING LADIES: ZITA JOHANN

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Boris Karloff and Zita Johann in THE MUMMY (1932).

 

Zita Johann only had eight screen credits, but one of them is well-known to horror fans.

When she starred opposite Boris Karloff in THE MUMMY (1932) she delivered one of the great performances in a Universal monster movie. Her portrayal of Helen Grosvenor, the reincarnated Princess Anckesen-Amon, was mystical, mysterious, tragic, and very sexy.

And in terms of classic horror, that’s all she wrote. It was one and done for Johann, which is too bad, because she was really good in THE MUMMY.

Here’s a partial look at Johann’s film career:

THE STRUGGLE (1931) – Florrie – Johann’s film debut is in this drama about alcoholism, the final feature directed by D.W. Griffith.

TIGER SHARK (1932) – Quita Silva- Romance directed by Howard Hawks, also starring Edward G. Robinson and featuring J. Carroll Naish.

THE MUMMY (1932)- Helen Grosvenor – one of Universal’s best monster movies. Slow-paced but eerie to its core, this Karl Freund directed thriller features a remarkable performance by Boris Karloff as the living mummy Im Ho Tep, who, once resurrected, seeks out the mummified body of his former love, the Princess Anckesen-Amon.

THE MUMMY is really a tragic love story. Im Ho Tep’s life is shattered when his forbidden love, the Princess Anckesen-Amon, dies at a young age. When he tries to resurrect her using the Scroll of Thoth, he’s found out and sentenced to death. He meets a horrifying end as he’s buried alive.

Centuries later, in 1921, his mummified body is discovered and accidentally resurrected. He resurfaces in 1932 and helps archeologists unearth the tomb of the mummified Princess Anckesen-Amon, in the hopes of once more bringing her back to life.

While attempting to do so, he discovers Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), who’s the splitting image of Anckesen-Amon. Convinced that Helen is Anckesen-Amon reincarnated, Im Ho Tep seeks to kill her and bring her back to life so they can live together for all eternity.

THE MUMMY also features the phenomenal make-up work of Jack Pierce, and fine supporting performances by Edward Van Sloan and David Manners, but it’s Boris Karloff and Zita Johann who drive THE MUMMY.

Johann’s wide eyes and dark features give her a sensual, mysterious presence. She makes for a strong, independent female character, and she’s convincing as the reincarnated princess.

In THE MUMMY, Johann delivers one of my favorite performances by an actress in the Universal monster movies.

RAIDERS OF THE LIVING DEAD (1986) – Librarian – Zita Johann’s final screen credit in this 1980s zombie flick.

Zita Johann was born on July 14, 1904 in Austria-Hungary. Before acting in the movies, she performed on Broadway starting in 1924.

In THE MUMMY, she and director Karl Freund did not get along. According to Johann, Freund went out of his way to make her life miserable on set. That being said, Johann did develop the reputation for being a difficult actress to work with. Evidently, she turned down lots of scripts, which may explain why she made so few movies.

I wish Johann had made more movies. Her performance as Helen Grosvenor has always been a treat for me and one of the best parts of THE MUMMY. Watching Johan portray Grosvenor, you’ll easily see why Karloff’s Im Ho Tep was in love with her.

Johann passed away on September 20, 1993 in Nyack, New York at the age of 89 from pneumonia.

Zita Johann – July 14, 1904 – September 20, 1993.

I hope you enjoyed this LEADING LADIES column and will join me again next time when we look at another leading lady from horror cinema.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

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THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA (2019) – Tepid Horror Movie Not Scary

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As a horror movie fan, I see most of the horror movies which make their way to my local theater, even those which I expect to be pretty bad. Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised. Other times, I’m not.

In the case of THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA (2019), I was not.

THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA tells the story of a demon that steals children away from their families. Social worker Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini) suspects a woman is abusing her children and has them removed from her custody against the mother’s wishes who tries to tell Anna that she’s locking them inside a closet to protect them. Yeah, right. Of course, in this case, it’s true.

When the children do end up dead, the mother tells Anna they were killed by La Llorona, and then she tells Anna that she prayed to La Llorona so it will take Anna’s children away as payback. Ouch! So, I guess you’re a bit bitter, eh?

Anyway, that’s exactly what happens. La Llorona sets her sights on Anna’s two children, and when Anna seeks the help of a local priest Father Perez (Tony Amendola), he sends her to a specialist in these things, a former priest who battles the supernatural by using unconventional methods. Anna agrees, and she meets with Rafael Olvera (Raymond Cruz), and he agrees to protect her children and do battle with La Llorona.

I like the idea of a demon that preys on children. It’s pretty scary. But THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA does little with this idea to keep it scary.

First off, the actual demon, La Llorona, doesn’t do a whole heck of a lot other than zoom into people’s faces and scream loudly at them.  It shows up for some typical jump scares, and does enjoy a few fine creepy moments, like a scene where it sneaks up behind Anna’s daughter in the bath tub and tries to drown her, but these moments are few and far between.

The film isn’t scary. In fact, the audience laughed more than screamed, and it certainly didn’t seem like nervous laughter.

The story is pretty standard and not fleshed out. Very little about La Llorona is explained. Anna’s husband, a cop, is deceased, but we learn nothing about how he died, nor does his death have anything to do with this story, which seems like a missed opportunity. Anna accepts both Father Perez’s advice and Rafael’s help without batting an eye. We learn nothing about Rafael’s past or background to explain why he’s an expert in this sort of thing.

The whole story is rather superficial with details simply glossed over. It’s a mediocre screenplay by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis.

Director Michael Chaves gives us nary a scare.

The story takes place in 1973, seemingly for no other reason than to fit into the timeline of THE CONJURING/ANNABELLE universe, in which this film takes place. Barely. There’s one very brief reference to the doll Annabelle by Father Perez. Blink and you’ll miss it.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really look like it’s taking place in 1973. Sure, there are old style TVs, landline phones, and 1970s era cars, but the clothes and hairstyles look like 2019.

The one thing  THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA has going for it is the acting. Linda Cardellini is very good in the lead role as Anna. I like Cardellini a lot, as she has been excellent in such films as GREEN BOOK (2018) and THE FOUNDER (2016), as well as on the TV shows BLOODLINE (2015-2017) and MAD MEN (2013-2015), to name just some of her credits, and way back in the day of course she was on ER (2003-2009).

Raymond Cruz, who played drug dealer Tuco Salamanca on both BETTER CALL SAUL (2015-2016) and BREAKING BAD (2008-2009)— in fact someone in the audience called out, “Hey, it’s Tuco!”— is strangely cast as supernatural mystic Rafael Olvera. I’m tempted to say he was miscast. For much of the film he seems like he’s on downers, as if he’s going to doze off at any moment. But somehow by the time the film ends, he pulls it off. It’s an unconventional take on this type of character. The result is a performance that is weird at first but ends up as being rather refreshing.

THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA is a rather weak horror movie. Bereft of scares, it tells a story with no meat on its bones and features a demon whose bark is worse than its bite. It likes to scream a lot, but that’s about it.

For a horror movie about a demon that preys on children not to be frightening, that speaks volumes, and is really all you need to know about THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA.

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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.

—END—

PET SEMATARY (2019) – Remake Standard Horror Vehicle

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For me, Pet Sematary has always been one of Stephen King’s scariest novels. When I first read it nearly thirty years ago, it really got under my skin. I also enjoyed the 1989 film adaptation of PET SEMATARY.

While I didn’t really see the need for a remake, considering the source material, I felt, well, why the heck not? So I went into the theater to see this one with fairly enthusiastic expectations.

PET SEMATARY (2019) tells a tale that remains chilling today.  Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) relocate their family— eight year-old daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence), three year-old son Gage (twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) and cat Church— from Boston to rural Maine in order to slow their lives down and spend more time with each other.

Not long after they settle in, Ellie discovers a strange “pet sematary” in the woods in the back of their property, and their neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) explains that it’s been there for years, a place where the local children bury their dead pets. Cemetery is spelled “sematary” because in the past the children had misspelled the sign.

In front of their home is a rural road where huge trucks roar by at speeds which seem to rival supersonic jets. These rigs also don’t tend to make any noise until they’re right on top of the property. Not very realistic. I live on a rural road. You can hear the rumble of trucks coming from a distance.

Anyway, when Church is killed on that road, to spare Ellie heartbreak, Jud shows Louis another cemetery, this one located deeper in the woods behind the pet sematary, and advises Louis to bury the cat there, without telling him why.

The next day, the cat returns, alive, but very different, aggressive, and not very agreeable. Jud then explains to Louis the secret of the second cemetery, that things buried in the soil there return. Of course, they don’t return the same.

Later, when Ellie is tragically killed by one of those monstrous rigs racing along the rural highway, Louis decides his daughter has been taken from him too quickly, and against his better judgment, buries her in the pet sematary, knowing that she will return.

Oh, the things that parents will do for their children!

As I said, Pet Sematary has always been for me one of Stephen King’s scariest novels, mostly I think because of the pain of the parents’ grief and the knowledge that what Louis is about to do will end badly for everyone involved.

One of the biggest weaknesses of this new movie version of PET SEMATARY is that somehow, in spite of the frightening source material, it’s simply not that scary. Part of this is the changes made to the story. Then there’s the dialogue which isn’t very sharp, and lastly the film simply fails to capitalize on the true horror aspects of the novel.

Let’s start with the first half of the film, before anything or anyone is buried. Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer don’t really take advantage of the natural creepy elements here. When Elle first discovers the cemetery, she initially sees some local children wearing masks taking their pet there, images which should be weird and creepy, but they hardly register as such since we see them so briefly.

When Louis fails to save a dying student at the clinic, a plot point that is critical in the novel, the victim Victor Pascow returns numerous times to warn Louis against his involvement with the sematary. These scenes also barely register here. Neither do the flashback scenes with Rachel and her sister who was suffering from spinal bifida. These scenes were unnerving in the novel. They’re rushed and glossed over here in the movie.

Once Louis learns about the pet sematary, and after seeing how disastrous the return of Church proved to be, it really strained believability that— regardless of how much he missed his daughter— that he would bury her there. He’s gotta know how she will be when she returns. The film failed to convince me that a grieving father would feel this is a good idea. It’s not like there’s a chance she’d come back normal. The film makes it abundantly clear that it’s not going to happen.

The change here having Ellie killed and resurrected rather than Gage didn’t really add anything new to the story, other than giving Ellie a bit more to do when she eventually comes back.

I can’t say I was all that impressed by the screenplay by Matt Greenberg, based of course on the Stephen King novel.  I could give or take the changes made to the story, including the ending, as nothing new here did all that much for me, and the parts that stuck to the original simply weren’t told with any sort of conviction. There was something very flat about the whole production.

Jason Clarke, who’s been in a ton of movies, including an excellent performance as Ted Kennedy in CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018), is an actor I like a lot. He’s very good here as Louis Creed, although again, I simply did not believe he’d think burying his daughter in the pet sematary was a good idea. Clarke also turned in notable performances in the genre films TERMINATOR GENISYS (2015) and DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES  (2014).

Amy Seimetz is okay as Rachel, but as written, the character strangely doesn’t figure as prominently in the story as one would expect.

Young Jete Laurence is very good as Ellie, and she is admittedly rather creepy when she returns from the grave.

John Lithgow is sufficiently earthy as lifelong Maine resident Jud, but one of the highlights from the 1989 film was Fred Gwynne’s performance as the character. Gwynne, who was forever typecast and remembered as Herman Munster on THE MUNSTERS (1964-66) delivered an outstanding performance in that 1989 film that was one of the best parts of the movie. Lithgow here did not make me forget about Gwynne.

I can’t say that I liked this new version of PET SEMATARY all that much. It’s not as good as the 1989 film, and it’s nowhere near as scary as King’s novel. It’s passable horror entertainment, but since it fails to convince its audience that its main character would indeed take the drastic steps he does to resurrect his deceased daughter, the film never really resonates or becomes more than just a standard by-the-numbers horror vehicle.

Stephen King fans deserve better.

—END—

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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THE PRODIGY (2019) – Passable Horror Movie Not Overly Smart

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THE PRODIGY (2019) is a horror movie that has its moments, times when it delivers some decent thrills and chills, but sadly for horror fans it’s ultimately done in by a script that suffers from a serious case of the stupids.

THE PRODIGY opens in chilling enough fashion as a young girl escapes from a serial killer named Edward Scarka (Paul Fauteux). As the police gun Scarka down, the action switches to proud parents Sarah (Taylor Schilling) and John (Peter Mooney) welcoming their new son into the world, born at the exact moment of Scarka’s death.

It doesn’t take long for Sarah and John to realize that their son is special, a genius, a prodigy, and they enroll him into a special school at a young age. Time passes and the story settles on young Miles (Jackson Robert Scott) at the age of eight. It’s at this time that Sarah and John begin to notice troubling changes in Miles. It starts one night when he’s with his babysitter, and in a creepy game of hide and seek, he leads her barefoot down a set of dark basement stairs, and if you’ve seen A QUIET PLACE (2018) you know you shouldn’t walk barefoot down a set of sketchy stairs. Yup, a similar fate awaits the babysitter here, in a scene that is blatantly derivative from A QUIET PLACE. Of course, Miles blacks out and says he remembers none of what happened.

More weird things ensue, including a grisly end to the family dog. Miles’ doctor recommends that Sarah bring him to see a specialist in reincarnation. Jeesh! A guy who specializes in reincarnation? Who knew!

Anyway, this specialist, Arthur Jacobson (Colm Feore) is convinced that Miles’ body is being invaded by another human soul. He tells Sarah that he intends to hypnotize Miles, speak to this soul, find out what it wants, and then help it, because in past cases, as soon as the human soul got what it came back for, the human host became free. Blah, blah, blah.

Of course, there are some complications here. One, the soul inside Miles belongs to a serial killer. You can bet that whatever it is he wants is not very pleasant. And two, he’s a pretty smart serial killer, and he turns the tables on Mr. Jacobson, making him flee with his tail between his legs, a better fate than he gave the family dog.

Eventually, things get so bad that Sarah and John decide Miles should live in an institution, but John stupidly tells Miles about this decision before they do it, and faster than you can say THE OMEN John is fighting for his life. Finally, Sarah decides to take an extreme measure to help her son, which proves to be the most ridiculous plot point of the entire movie.

In terms of scares, THE PRODIGY isn’t bad. Director Nicholas McCarthy sets up his share of creepy scenes which for the most part work. There were a couple of times where I actually jumped, which doesn’t happen very often, and some scenes score very high on the creep-out meter, like when Miles asks to sleep in the same bed with his mom, and we see his tiny hand clasp her shoulder, and she squirms. You can almost see her skin crawl at his touch. Another plus is we’re not subjected to long drawn out scenes of people walking through dark corridors where nothing happens. The pace is tight throughout.

On the other hand, some of the scenes are derivative of other horror movies, like the aforementioned A QUIET PLACE. The ending also borrows heavily— too heavily— from THE OMEN (1976).

The best thing I can say about the screenplay by Jeff Buhler is that I liked the fact that this wasn’t a demonic possession story but a human possession story, which was a fresh take. It wasn’t any more believable, but it was different. I can’t say I bought into the whole reincarnation angle, though, and the script didn’t really offer any answers other than to say that’s what happened. We never learn how Scarka’s soul enters Miles’ body. It just does.

The worst thing about the screenplay is that sadly for a movie that has some good scares it’s not all that smart. Let’s start with the parents. Now, there’s a scene midway through where John and Sarah are on their date night, drinking beer in their car, which is a stupid thing to do, but that’s not what I’m talking about. In this scene, they reminisce about the days before they were parents when they were young and had fun.  They seem like real people here. I can’t say the same holds true later on.

Their reactions to their son Miles seem a bit off throughout. Sarah’s behavior is oftentimes inconsistent. At times, she’s worried about her son, even afraid of him, but at others she’s fiercely protective of him, almost in denial of his issues. You expect her at some point to just up and realize her son is dangerous. It takes her far too long to make this realization.

John could have been a really interesting character. He had an abusive father, and once Miles learns this, he uses the information to get inside John’s head, trying to goad John into hurting him in order to use his actions against him. The few times this issue comes up are very interesting, but the screenplay doesn’t take full advantage.

This story would have been so much better had it worked harder at being realistic. I wanted to see John and Sarah take Miles to see as many experts as possible. I wanted to see the school’s reaction to Miles attacking another student. I wanted somebody to call the police!

The ending also didn’t really work for me. First, Sarah makes an extreme decision to save her son, which just didn’t ring true, and then the film goes right into OMEN territory for its finale, which was far too predictable.

Jeff Buhler also wrote the screenplay to THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN (2008), in which he adapted a Clive Barker short story. That movie, which starred Bradley Cooper, was a much more ambitious one than THE PRODIGY.

Taylor Schilling, from Netflix’ ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (2013-2019) is decent enough as Sarah, although she’s playing a character who I ultimately didn’t like all that much. Likewise, Peter Mooney is fine as daddy John.

Jackson Robert Scott gives his fellow cast plenty of evil eye stares as the possessed Miles, but compared to other evil children in the movies he’s rather tame. Colm Feore is adequate as the ineffective reincarnation specialist Arthur Jacobson, and while Paul Fauteux looks plenty scary as serial killer Edward Scarka, he doesn’t really do much of anything.

THE PRODIGY is a passable horror movie. It provides a few scares here and there, tells a somewhat interesting story, but presents characters who don’t always seem that real and who make decisions that really can’t be described as anything other than stupid.

Not exactly prodigy material.

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