IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE BABYSITTER (2017)

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Judah Lewis and Samara Weaving in THE BABYSITTER (2017)

I had so much fun watching THE BABYSITTER (2017) I almost watched it again immediately after finishing it.  It’s that good!

The best part of THE BABYSITTER is the script by Brian Duffield. It’s hilarious. Think SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010) meets STRANGER THINGS (2016-present) with a sprinkling of 80s slasher horror.

THE BABYSITTER is the story of twelve year-old Cole Johnson (Judah Lewis) who like other middle schoolers is dealing with issues of self-confidence and bullying. But he has a super hot babysitter Bee (Samara Weaving), who is a very popular high school student. She treats him well, and they enjoy spending time together.

Cole’s friend and neighbor Melanie (Emily Alyn Lind) dares him to stay up and spy on Bee after he goes to bed, to see what she really does late at night, the implication being that she invites friends over and has wild parties. Curious, Cole does just that, and when a bunch of friends do come over, and he spies Bee making out with one of them, he smiles thinking he is going to watch a fun time, but when Bee suddenly drives two knives into another teen’s skull, Cole discovers that Bee and her friends have an entirely different agenda, and it involves a cult, a sacrifice, and the blood of a young boy— Cole’s.

THE BABYSITTER starts out fun and never lets up. As I said, the script by Brian Duffield is nonstop funny.  The dialogue is fresh and lively, full of pop culture references, and the characters of Cole and Bee are developed long before the horror elements kick in.

Add some very creative direction by McG and you have an instant winner. McG uses clever touches like superimposing words on the screen for comedic effect, first person camerawork, and during the film’s second half plenty of blood and gore. None of it is all that scary, but it is very entertaining. That being said, the initial murder scene with Bee and her first victim is rather jarring.

McG has directed a lot of movies, including the standard Kevin Costner actioner 3 DAYS TO KILL (2014) and the lowly regarded TERMINATOR SALVATION (2009), the one with Christian Bale and without Arnold, a film that in spite of its bad reputation I actually liked quite a bit. That being said, THE BABYSITTER is by far the best film I’ve seen that McG has directed.

It was filmed in 2015 and was intended to be a theatrical release until it was bought by Netflix for a 2017 release on its streaming service.  Like other Netflix originals, the colors are exceedingly bright and vibrant. There’s a clean, crisp, look to the film which goes a long way towards making it watchable.

I loved the cast.

The two leads are perfect. As Cole, Judah Lewis is a nice combination of dorky and heroic. He’s a middle schooler without self-confidence, but he’s a nice kid who’s more mature than he thinks he is. And later when it’s up to him to save the day, he’s more than up to the task.

Samara Weaving steals the show as Bee, the babysitter. Early on she’s the ultra cool and sexy babysitter who really treats Cole right and does well by him. But when she becomes the cult killer, she’s all vamp and evil, and she pulls off both sides of Bee with relative ease. She’s very convincing in the role.

Weaving was also in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) and the TV show ASH VS. EVIL DEAD (2015-16), and I’ve enjoyed her most of all here in THE BABYSISTTER.

The other reason THE BABYSITTER works so well is the chemistry between Judah Lewis and Samara Weaving. In spite of the humor, the film portrays a very real relationship between Cole and Bee. They really do like each other, and the emotions felt between the two of them later when things go south, are genuine and real. The story works as more than just a lighthearted farce because Cole loves Bee and feels betrayed by her. These feelings come out loud and clear, despite the film’s over the top style.

Lewis and Weaving are also helped by a strong supporting cast.

Robbie Amell has a field day as Max, the ultra handsome friend of Bee’s who wants nothing more to personally end Cole’s life. Hana Mae Lee and Bella Thorne round out the cult team, and both turn in strong performances.

Leslie Bibb and Ken Marino do a fine job as the cliché clueless and syrupy sweet parents, looking and acting like they walked off the set of FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986). Their performances work because it’s all played for laughs.

My second favorite performance in the film behind both Lewis and Weaving belongs to Emily Alyn Lind as Cole’s friend Melanie. She obviously has a crush on Cole, and her scenes with him are some of the best in the movie.

So, THE BABYSITTER is light and funny, but how does it hold up as a horror movie? Surprisingly well! The film doesn’t skimp on the blood and gore, and the humor never becomes dumbed down or stupid, and so it never detracts from the story, which ultimately is about a group of cult members who want to harvest the blood of a young teenager.

At least that’s the plot. The theme is much more in line with needing to stand up for oneself, which is something that Cole never does early on, but that all changes later on in the film.

But make no mistake.  This one is played for laughs, so don’t expect GET OUT (2017). That being said, the humor is so sharp and the script and direction so imaginative, you’d be hard-pressed not to totally love this movie.

I know I certainly did.  In fact, THE BABYSITTER is the most fun I’ve had watching a horror film in a long time. And while I’ve never encountered a babysitter like Bee, everything else about this story, in spite of its over the top humor, rings true.

This Halloween, as you’re heading out to a party or to a haunted house tour or to a night of just plain old trick or treating, make sure—even if you don’t have kids— you hire THE BABYSITTER.

—END—

 

 

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HELL FEST (2018) – Horror Movie Gets Better As It Goes Along

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Bex Taylor-Klaus, Christian James, Reign Edwards, and Amy Forsyth in HELL FEST (2018).

HELL FEST (2018) is one of those rare horror movies that actually gets better as it goes along.

And that’s a good thing, because it didn’t get off to such a hot start. In fact, after a lackluster opening sequence which could have appeared in countless other slasher films, I thought that this was going to be a pretty bad horror movie.

I was wrong.

HELL FEST opens at a Halloween attraction where a young woman is murdered by a man in a mask who’s obviously taking his job of scaring people a little too seriously. Of course, he’s not working there at all.  He just snuck in, and no one notices him because it’s a Halloween attraction and all the employees are wearing masks. As opening sequences go, this one is as derivative as they get.

The action switches to a couple of years later where we meet a group of college students on their way for some Halloween fun at Hell Fest, a horror-themed amusement park. Of course, our masked friend from the movie’s first scene is also planning to be there.

The characters here include Natalie (Amy Forsyth), Brooke (Reign Edwards), Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus), Quinn (Christian James), Asher (Matt Mercurio), and Gavin (Roby Attal). Natalie and Brooke are best friends, and Brooke is trying to set Natalie up with Gavin, but she doesn’t have to work too hard because they hit it off immediately.

Too bad for them they choose Hell Fest for their first date.

After its initial ho-hum opening, HELL FEST continues its sloppy start with the introduction of its main characters. All of these folks seemed like they had ten cups of coffee each, and there’s so much excitement about going to Hell Fest, these college kids act like toddlers on Christmas morning. It just didn’t seem all that real to me.

The dialogue didn’t help either. There was just something off about the film’s early scenes. The script gave us lines that didn’t seem real, the way people today talk, and the direction was choppy.

I also had an issue with the look of the film. I’m guessing this was done on purpose, but HELL FEST looked like a 1980s slasher pic, in particular Tobe Hooper’s THE FUNHOUSE (1981). But this movie isn’t taking place in the 1980s. It’s taking place in the here and now.

Moreover, the characters didn’t exactly look like college students here in 2018. They looked like 1980s college students. I found this to be rather distracting early on.

Now, the actual amusement park, Hell Fest, was pretty cool.  I’ve never been to a Halloween attraction as elaborate as this one, but I thought, well, if this film remains bad, then at least I can enjoy all the horror elements from the amusement park. And this really is a plus for this movie. It doesn’t take place in a house, haunted or not, and we don’t have to suffer through long boring scenes where characters walk alone in dark corridors looking for trouble. The Hell Fest setting really helps.

But then a funny thing happened. The movie actually gets better and becomes a decent horror flick.

The moment this occurs is when Natalie meets the masked killer in one of the haunted attractions, and he’s got a victim pinned to the floor, and of course Natalie and her friends all believe this is just part of the show. Natalie, who’s into this less than her friends, has been trying to make herself more resilient and less scared, and so when her friends exit the room, she remains to watch. The killer has the knife pointed at his victim, and finally Natalie says “Just do it, already. You’re here to scare me.” And he does. He stabs her to death in front of Natalie.

The expression on Natalie’s face when she realizes that what she has just seen looks real is one of the best moments in the movie. Amy Forsyth who plays Natalie doesn’t play this scene in a clichéd manner, where she suddenly screams outright. No. The camera lingers on her face, and it’s one of those moments where she’s so good an actress that the audience knows exactly what she’s thinking and feeling.  She goes from confidence to suspicion to anger to uncertainty to fear. It’s a great moment. And the movie never looks back. It takes off from that scene and keeps on going.

There are plenty of well-done horror scenes. Gavin’s encounter with the killer is a good one, as is a memorable sequence involving a guillotine. There’s also a very suspenseful scene in which Natalie wears a mask to hide, and another bit where she’s trapped in the rest room by the killer.  The ending is not half bad either.

The film also put a nice spin on the jump scare trope. Pretty much all the jump scares in this one are from the masked employees at the amusement park, and so they all work. The filmmakers use them here very effectively, as they are caused by people who are supposed to be causing them. The real horror here, the killer, operates outside the jump scare scope.

And the very ending of this one is a welcomed improvement over “the killer is dead but then leaps back up at the camera” routine. I liked how this one ended. It achieves the same result, setting up possible sequels, without the traditional way of doing it.

I thought Amy Forsyth was superb as Natalie. The best part of her performance is she makes the character her own. She’s not a traditional “scream queen” constantly running away screaming, nor is she the traditional “bad ass heroine.” She’s someone in between.  She plays it as the thinking person’s heroine. A lot of thought goes into her actions, and she’s one of the smarter characters to take on a masked serial killer.

Likewise, Reign Edwards is excellent as her best friend Brooke, who early on acts all bad ass, but later becomes so incapacitated by fear it’s up to Natalie to save the day.  Bex Taylor-Klaus is fun as Taylor, the quirky loud and abrasive friend. Both Christian James and Matt Mercurio as Quinn and Asher make for stand-up boyfriends, and Roby Attal as Gavin shares a natural chemistry with Amy Forsyth’s Natalie and so their romance came off as likable and real.

Michael Tourek is believable in a brief role as a security guard, and has one of the more memorable lines in the movie, when he tells the girls he can’t help them since they weren’t harmed, and that it’s just the employees doing their job. He says rather dismissively,  “You’re scared? Welcome to Hell Fest.”

And Tony Todd plays the masked killer. Todd has some experience in this department, years ago having played  The Candyman in CANDYMAN (1992). He really doesn’t have to do all that much here other than walk around and look scary.

The actual mask used in this movie is indeed rather creepy, and I certainly liked the look.

Director Gregory Plotkin stumbles to get out of the gate with some unconvincing and awkward early scenes, but he more than makes up for it with some effective horror scenes in the film’s second half.

The screenplay by Seth M. Sherwood, Blair Butler, and Akela Cooper also struggles early on. The initial dialogue between the main characters came off as forced and phony, but once the horror elements settle in, the script, like the direction, improves.

I also really enjoyed the music score by Bear McCreary, who also does the music for TV’s THE WALKING DEAD.

HELL FEST certainly hearkens back to the slasher films of yesteryear, especially from the 1980s. In fact, this one looks a lot like a 1980s slasher flick, which at times distracted me because it looked more like the 80s than 2018.

Which also got me to thinking. Forty years ago, when I first saw the slasher film that really got these films started, John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978), I was 14, and subsequent films continued to be from my generation. But now here we are in 2018, and the main college age characters in this film are actually from my sons’ generation.

And so I got to thinking, and this is one of the things that rubbed me the wrong way early on with HELL FEST, that forty years have passed, and characters from 2018 shouldn’t be acting the way characters acted in 1978, which in effect, was the way they were acting in this film. I remember clearly as a teenager watching films on TV like THE BLOB (1958) which had teens from my parents’ generation, and teens from the 1950s definitely were different from teens from the 1970s.

Forty years is a long time to be dealing with movie serial killers without bringing anything new to the table. Horror films like HELL FEST need to do a better job of bringing their characters into the here and now.

Which brings me to the worst part of HELL FEST: it’s a slasher movie. There’s only so much one can do with this trope.

But the best part of HELL FEST is that in spite of this, it has a talented group of young actors, led by Amy Forsyth in the lead role, and it does make full use of its horror elements, and so once this one gets started, about midway through, it really becomes a decent horror movie. Sure, we’ve seen all this before, and we’ve seen it done better, but we’ve also seen it done a lot worse.

Is HELL FEST as ambitious as GET OUT (2017) or A QUIET PLACE (2018)? No. But it’s certainly a fun horror movie, and with Halloween on its way, you can’t ask for much more than that.

 

—END—

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE OBLONG BOX (1969)

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This one is a reprint from September 2010, originally published in The Official Newsletter of the Horror Writers Association:

 

IN THE SPOOKGLIGHT

By

Michael Arruda

 

Vincent Price made a career playing over-the-top hammy dramatic characters in colorful period pieces in the 1960s.  He’s at it again in THE OBLONG BOX (1969), a film in which he is paired with Christopher Lee.

THE OBLONG BOX is loosely based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name—very loosely, as in just borrowing the title!

The story begins in Africa, with Sir Edward Markham (Alister Williamson) tortured by natives, his face apparently scarred beyond recognition. Markham’s brother Sir Julian Markham (Vincent Price) arrives too late to save him.

They return to England, with Sir Edward now a crazed lunatic. Sir Julian is forced to keep his brother locked in chains in an upstairs bedroom of their mansion.  With the help of a family friend Samuel Trench (Peter Arne), Edward plans his escape.  They hire an African witch doctor to supply Edward with a drug to imitate death.  The plan is for Edward to be removed from the house as a “corpse” only to be revived and rescued later by Trench.

However, Julian immediately seals Edward’s lifeless body inside a coffin and unknowingly buries his brother alive. Trench decides rescuing Edward from a premature burial is too dangerous and out of the question, and so he leaves him for dead.

Meanwhile, Dr. Neuhartt (Christopher Lee) has been paying grave robbers to supply him with bodies for his research. As luck would have it, his grave robbers dig up Edward. When Neuhartt opens the coffin inside his laboratory, Edward attacks him but doesn’t kill him, deciding he could use the doctor as an accomplice.

Edward then dons a crimson hood and seeks revenge against both Trench and his brother, going on a bloody rampage through the countryside, slitting the throats of his victims. Eventually, Julian discovers his brother is still alive, setting the stage for the final confrontation between brothers, as well as the obligatory unmasking of Edward’s hideous face.

THE OBLONG BOX has long been considered too long, too slow, and too rambling by critics, but I’ve always liked its intricate plot with its many pathways.   It takes the viewer along a very creepy ride, with premature burials, African voodoo, a masked maniac, and bloody murders.

THE OBLONG BOX was supposed to have been directed by Michael Reeves, the talented young director who had just finished another Price movie, THE CONQUEROR WORM (1968) [also known as THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL), a film that had been very well received. Sadly, Reeves died before he could direct THE OBLONG BOX, and so the directing duties went to Gordon Hessler.

A lot has been made of Hessler’s lackluster direction of this picture, and I would have to agree. In spite of its strong story, there really aren’t a lot of memorable scenes in THE OBLONG BOX.  On the contrary, there are a lot of weak scenes. The bloody killings are tepid and the blood obviously fake, and the final confrontation between Edward and Julian is also a disappointment, as well as the unmasking scene.  The make-up job on Edward’s face is embarrassingly routine. Still, Hessler can direct.  Five years later, he would be at the helm of THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974), one of the best of the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movies.

The acting is just OK. With Vincent Price, you get exactly what you would expect, an over-the-top hammy performance. As always, he’s fun to watch.  Christopher Lee is cast against type as the decent Dr. Neuhartt, but sadly, there’s not a lot for him to do with this role.

Alister Williamson is a disappointment as Sir Edward Markham.  As the main villain, Edward should dominate this movie. He doesn’t. Had Christopher Lee played Edward, THE OBLONG BOX would have been a much better movie. Of course, I can understand Lee not always wanting to play the bad guy. Trouble is, he’s just so damned good at it! I wish he had played the role.

Speaking of bad guys, probably the most memorable performance in THE OBLONG BOX belongs to Peter Arne as Samuel Trench. Trench is the slimiest character in this movie, and Arne plays him to the hilt.

But the most disappointing part of this movie is that in spite of the pairing of the two horror superstars, Price and Lee only share one brief scene together. Rip-off!

And the final nail in the coffin— heh, heh— regarding THE OBLONG BOX is that its ending doesn’t make any sense. It’s one of those endings where you see it and you know it was shot just to have a shocking last scene, even though based upon what has happened before, it makes little or no sense.

But even with all these flaws, I still like THE OBLONG BOX, for the simple reason that I love its plot, an exciting roller coaster ride of frights and thrills.  The screenplay was written by Lawrence Huntington, with additional dialogue by Christopher Wicking.

THE OBLONG BOX is an example of a movie that succeeds because of the strength of its writing. The direction is fair and the acting okay, but it’s the writing that lifts this one to memorable status, which is a rare thing in movies, a medium dominated by directors and actors.

—END—

 

THE NUN (2018) Is Not Fun

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THE NUN (2018) has one major thing going for it: atmosphere.

And that’s because it was shot on location in Romania, and so you have enormous ominous castles and an Old World countryside that is ripe with superstition and evil spirits. In terms of setting, you can’t get more authentic. It’s so rich in atmosphere it brought me back to the Hammer Films of yesteryear.

And yet it’s all for naught because unfortunately, sadly, in spite of this being an atmospheric gem, the rest of the film is unbearably awful.  As in really awful.

What a shame.

This one would only have needed a halfway decent story, and direction that just allowed the story to flow without getting in the way, and yet the writers and director here couldn’t even do that.

Again. A shame.

THE NUN is the latest film to take place in THE CONJURING (2013) universe.  THE CONJURING of course is the well-received horror movie by director James Wan, and a film that I liked a lot, that told the story of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. It was followed by THE CONJURING 2 (2016) and a pair of ANNABELLE movies featuring a scary doll which first appeared in THE CONJURING.

Now we have THE NUN which features a scary demon from THE CONJURING 2  that looks like a nun.

And this nun demon which goes by the name of Valak is pretty scary looking, which is another thing this movie has going for it. This film actually has a few things going for it, which makes it all the more amazing that it’s so gosh darn awful!

The film opens in Romania in the 1950s at a cloistered abbey where we witness two nuns fighting an unseen demon. To prevent the demon from entering her body, one of the nuns hangs herself.

The action switches to the Vatican where a priest named Father Burke (Demian Bichir) is informed he’s being sent to Romania to investigate the suicide of a nun, with the implication being that there’s more going on there at the abbey because Father Burke has experience with exorcsims.  Burke is told he needs to bring a young nun with him, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) because she has experienced visions, and these visions will be of help to Burke in his investigation.

In Romania, Father Burke and Sister Irene interview the young man who found the body of the hanged nun, a man who goes by the nickname Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) because he’s French. Duh.

So, Burke, Irene, and Frenchie go to the abbey and begin the investigation, which does not go well. Why, you ask? Because there’s a demon there of course! And this demon doesn’t like people poking around in his business, and so he does all the things audiences are used to seeing demons do in horror movies: makes loud noises, makes people see things that aren’t there, jumps out at people, and generally wreaks havoc all the while giving people in the CGI business jobs.

Yawn.

I’ve pointed out a couple of things THE NUN did well, but now it’s time to mention the things it didn’t do too well.

Let’s start with the special effects overkill.  There’s so much going on in the special effects department I felt like I was on the Disney Haunted Mansion ride. And when this happens, it kills any authenticity the film has. I didn’t believe any of it.

 

The story here has a lot of problems. The screenplay by Gary Dauberman creates very dull characters without any real sense of purpose. I’m still not sure what it was exactly that Father Burke was investigating or why exactly the Vatican wanted Sister Irene to help him. Additionally, I don’t really know what this demon was all about. Why was he possessing these nuns? It’s not like he’s actively trying to leave the abbey.  Is he a demon-homemaker who just wants to be left alone?

And the characters here have zero depth and are all rather boring.

Demian Bichir, an actor I generally enjoy, looks serious as Father Burke, and he definitely carries himself with some presence, but he’s about as interesting as a rosary bead.

The far more interesting bit of casting is Taissa Farmiga as Sister Irene. Farmiga is the younger sister of Vera Farmiga, who played Lorraine Warren in THE CONJURING movies. Hmm. THE NUN takes place before the events in THE CONJURING, and here we have a character Sister Irene, who because she is played by Vera Farmiga’s sister, bears a strong resemblance to the Lorraine Warren character. Would there, I wondered, be some sort of connection between the two? In other words, would the filmmakers have used this potentially ingenious bit of casting to the story’s advantage?

In a word, no.

So much for that.

Anyway, Taissa Farmiga is very good as Sister Irene, but again, I didn’t know much about the character or understand what her visions had to do with the story being told here in this movie.

THE NUN was directed by Corin Hardy, and I can’t say that I was impressed.  The scares were practically nonexistent, and the pacing poor. For a film that clocked in at just over 90 minutes, it felt much longer than that, especially during its second half. It also featured far too many special CGI effects which did nothing but detract from its storyline.

The other thing I did like was the music score by Abel Korzeniowski, which certainly captured the whole possessed abbey feel with lots of religious undertones. You could almost see the chanting monks hovering in the damp dark corridors. Korzeniowski also composed the music for the PENNY DREADFUL (2014-16) TV show.

THE NUN actually gets off to a good start. The on-location shooting in Romania combined with Abel Korzeniowski’s effective music score easily lured me into the proceedings. And upon first meeting Father Burke and Sister Irene, and buying into the performances of Demian Bichir and Taissa Farmiga, I was definitely interested in joining them on their investigation into the mysterious occurrences at the haunted abbey.

But this investigation only led to lots quiet moments searching dark corridors and hallways, with ghostly encounters that made little sense, and demonic confrontations that featured over-the-top CGI effects that were anything but scary, and some pretty awful dialogue.

Yes, when it became apparent about two-thirds of the way through this one that its story wasn’t going anywhere, the film simply lost my interest and became flat-out dull and boring, which is too bad, because it really looks good.

What a shame that the filmmakers went all the way to Romania to make this movie but didn’t bother to bring a decent story with them.

And I don’t know about you, but I went to see THE NUN to see a horror movie, not a Romanian travelogue.

—END—

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: CLOVERFIELD (2008)

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CLOVERFIELD (2008) is the best giant monster movie from the last twenty years.

The recent Godzilla movies, including GODZILLA (2014) and SHIN GODZILLA (2016), the King Kong flicks, both Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005) and KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017), and the well-regarded MONSTERS (2010), none of these even come close to matching the thrills and chills found in CLOVERFIELD.

In fact, CLOVERFIELD is so good I’d argue it’s one of the best giant monster movies ever made. Period. It’s in the conversation with such classics as KING KONG (1933), GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS! (1956) and THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953).

I’m still amazed that a film this good hasn’t spawned a direct sequel.  There have been two recent movies that have shared the same Cloverfield “universe” but they haven’t been direct sequels. We’ve had 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016), a decent movie, and THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX (2018), a not-so-decent movie.

I suppose I shouldn’t be upset. I mean, most of the time, sequels don’t improve on the original, but for a movie that’s as good as CLOVERFIELD, it almost seems a shame that it may end up being a standalone one-and-done kinda deal.  Imagine if you will, if Christopher Lee had never played Dracula again? He almost didn’t. It took him eight years before he agreed to do a sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). It’s been ten years since CLOVERFIELD. Rumor has it that a direct sequel is in the works.  But I’ve heard that rumor before.

I hope it eventually happens, because sometimes you just need more.  On the other hand, just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water—- yeah, we didn’t need JAWS 2,3 and 4.  JAWS (1975) should have been a standalone movie.

Anyway, back to CLOVERFIELD. This movie received so much hype before its initial release because of its incredibly intriguing and cryptic teaser trailer showing the severed head of the Statue of Liberty crashing onto a New York City street.  It also didn’t hurt that J.J. Abrams’ name was attached to the project as its producer. Abrams, at the time, was riding high from the success of TV’s LOST (2004-2010).

CLOVERFIELD tells the story of a giant monster attack on New York City. It’s a “found footage” tale as it uses the gimmick of a videotape found by the government after the attack to tell its story. And the tape is of a farewell party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David) who’s leaving the next day for his new job in Japan. While all his friends are gathered at his apartment to wish him well, the attack happens outside, and suddenly everyone there is caught in the crossfire as the military moves in to contain the situation—or to try to contain the situation, anyway.

At the party, Rob had a fight with his girlfriend Beth (Odette Yustman), and so after the attack, when she calls him and tells him she is trapped in her apartment building, Rob decides to head back into the fray to save her, and his friends decide to go along with him.

The story in CLOVERFIELD is just okay, but it’s everything else that makes it such a superior movie.

First of all, it’s intense and flat-out scary. It’s one of the scariest giant monster movies ever made. It’s also one of the best “shaky cam” movies ever as well.  The credit here goes to director Matt Reeves, who’s one of my favorite horror movie directors working today. Reeves also directed LET ME IN (2010), a film that a lot of folks don’t like, as they prefer LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008) better, but I actually prefer Reeves’ film, as well as DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014) and WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017).

In CLOVERFIELD, Reeves creates some really intense scenes, from the aforementioned Statue of Liberty scene, to the sequence in the darkened subway, to the thrilling rescue of Beth. There are just so many edge-of-your-seat moments, which is not something one usually says about a giant monster movie.

Speaking of giant monsters, the “Cloverfield monster” itself is pretty cool looking.  It’s definitely an original, as it’s unlike most anything else that ever set foot in and trampled a large city. And to keep things consistent, it’s also pretty darn frightening!

CLOVERFIELD also has a phenomenal script by Drew Goddard. The dialogue is first-rate and it does a really good job developing its characters, which isn’t easy to do in a found footage movie.  These characters are so very real. He also gets the humor right, as there are lots of moments of welcomed comic relief. Goddard would go on to work on the scripts for THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012), WORLD WAR Z (2013), and THE MARTIAN (2015).

It also has a superb cast.

T.J. Miller steals the show as Hud, the man holding the camera and doing the filming. It’s amazing that he’s as good as he is in this movie, since most of the time he’s holding the camera and so we only hear his voice. He gets some of the best lines in the movie.

Lizzy Caplan is also memorable as Marlena, a friend who barely knows Rob, but who Hud is definitely interested in.  She has some key moments in the film. Likewise, Michael Stahl-David is very good as Rob, and Odette Yustman is equally as good as the frightened Beth.

The film is chock full of memorable lines, like when a military officer responds that they don’t know what’s out there, but that “whatever it is, it’s winning.”

In the same way that Godzilla’s devastating attack on Tokyo in the original GODZILLA hearkened back to the dropping of the atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the monster’s pummeling of New York City in CLOVERFIELD hearkens back to the events of 9/11. As such, the chaotic scenes in the city really resonate.

CLOVERFIELD is also a very short movie, clocking in at only 85 minutes.  This short length only adds to the intensity.

There’s also no music score, which adds to the realism. However, there is music during the end credits, by Michael Giacchino, a piece entitled “Roar!” It’s a powerful piece of music and seems to have been inspired by the various Godzilla themes.

CLOVERFIELD is one of the best giant monster movies ever made. It’s also one of my favorite horror movies.

If you haven’t seen it, you definitely want to check it out. And if you have seen it, maybe it’s time for you to check it out again.

You’ll have a monstrously good time.

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THE MEG (2018) – Giant Shark Tale Ridiculous But Fun

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THE MEG (2018) is often ridiculous and about as scary as a Scooby-Doo cartoon, but this mega shark adventure is also something else: fun.

THE MEG opens with a deep-sea rescue mission gone wrong.  Rescuer Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) is in the midst of leading a rescue team to save folks trapped in a damaged nuclear submarine, but when something seems to attack the sub, Jonas makes the executive decision to leave some of his team behind in order to rescue the few lives he has with him. It’s a decision that does not bode well with others on his team, as later no proof of a powerful sea creature which Jonas said was attacking the sub is ever found.

In terms of opening sequences, it’s not all that memorable and sounds more exciting than it actually is.

The action picks up five years later at a deep-sea station off the coast of China where a scientist named Zhang (Winston Chao) is leading an expedition to travel to the very depths of the ocean, and beyond.  See, Zhang believes that at the bottom of what is considered to be one of the deepest parts of the ocean floor, lies a gaseous barrier rather than a solid bottom, and he believes beneath that barrier is another world. And faster than you can say Jules Verne, a mini sub is launched from the station to prove just that.

The sub breaks through the barrier, but before anyone can celebrate, it’s attacked by a mysterious unseen creature. And of course, Zhang and company turn to the one man who has ever attempted a rescue that deep in the ocean, Jonas Taylor. Jonas, of course, says he’s done with all that, wants no part of it, and nothing they can say will change his mind. His resolve lasts all of two seconds before he learns that the woman commanding the sub and one of the people trapped inside is his ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee).

And so Jonas packs his bags and is off to the rescue, where of course he will come face to face with a massive prehistoric shark which may or may be the same creature which he encountered five years before. The film doesn’t really make that clear.

And this is only the beginning, because once the rescue is done, the mammoth shark decides he’s had enough of living so far below the ocean and comes up for a visit.

One of the main reasons THE MEG is so much fun is its story keeps evolving. It’s not just one long rescue mission tale.  Things continually change. As a result, the movie remains exciting throughout, and with some brisk pacing, there are very few slow parts here.

The screenplay by Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, and Erich Hoeber, based on the novel Meg by Steve Alten, also contains lots of lively dialogue which is sure to be a crowd pleaser. It also does a really good job developing its characters, which for a movie like this, is a pleasant surprise. In fact, that was one of my favorite parts of this movie, that its characters were all so likable.

But the story is not without flaws. A lot of things aren’t explained all that well. For instance, once the giant shark makes its presence known, everyone who doubted Jonas apologizes to him. Yet, at one point in the story, Jonas says the creature outside the sub in his doomed mission was destroyed in the subsequent explosion, so, just how the appearance of this prehistoric shark acquits Jonas is unclear to me. Just because there’s a huge shark around now doesn’t mean there was one that day Jonas left those people behind to die.

For such a deep-sea expedition, it seems to take only seconds for everyone to get down to the ocean floor and then back up again. And some of the later shark scenes are flat-out ludicrous but somehow don’t deteriorate into laughable material.

And while the story scores high on the adventure meter, it scores less so when it comes to conflict.  Nearly every plan our heroes suggest works.

Director Jon Turteltaub plays things safe. THE MEG is rated PG-13, so there’s not a drop of blood to be found. Yet, somehow, the movie doesn’t suffer for it.

The shark itself is okay.  CGI sharks just don’t cut it for me.  This one works best when we see it only partially, like shots from above where we see its massive form swimming beneath the waves. Those scenes are ominous, but seen up close, it’s nothing more than a frightening cartoon.

One of the strongest parts of THE MEG is its cast. Pretty much everyone in the movie is very good, and so that goes a long way towards making this film as enjoyable as it is.

Director Jon  Turtelbaub deserves some credit here for getting so much out of his actors in this one.

We’ll start at the top with Jason Statham, who’s been one of my favorite action movie stars over the past ten years or so. As he almost always is, he’s excellent here. He’s extremely believable in the part, except of course when he dives into the water for a hand to hand combat session with the supersized shark. Perhaps he should apply to become a Marvel superhero?

Even so, Statham does a good job making the ludicrous situations he finds himself in believable. His scenes with the little girl at the station, Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cal) are precious, and Shuya Sophia Cal is adorable and entertaining in the role.

Li Bingbing plays Suyin, Zhang’s daughter and Meiying’s mother.  She’s pretty much the lead scientist on the expedition, and she is definitely not a heroine in need of saving. She pretty much goes toe to toe with Statham’s Jonas Taylor, and the two of them lead the charge against the shark. She’s also very sexy.

Rainn Wilson, who played Dwight on THE OFFICE (2005-2013) plays the wealthy businessman who finances the expedition. He’s the guy you love to hate.

Cliff Curtis, who played Travis on FEAR THE WALKING DEAD (2015-17), is very good here as Jonas’ friend Mac. Likewise, Winston Chao is convincing as Zhang, as is Ruby Rose as the sexy engineer Jaxx who designed the deep-sea station.

Robert Taylor stands out as Heller, the doctor at the station who was there that fateful day when Jonas failed to rescue everyone from the nuclear sub, and for the past five years he had blamed Jonas for their deaths, claiming he had become unhinged. When the mega shark appears, Heller is quick to apologize to Jonas. Taylor, who plays Sheriff Walt Longmire on the TV show LONGMIRE (2012-2017), probably gives the best performance in the movie.

Olafur Darri Olafsson and Masi Oka are also very good as a couple of scientists, and likewise Jessica McNamee is memorable as Jonas’ ex-wife Lori.

Only Page Kennedy doesn’t  fare as well, as scientist DJ. He’s the one black character on the crew, and he’s also supposed to be the film’s comic relief, but a lot of the jokes I thought were cliché, and I think the one person of color in the movie deserved a better written role.

As shark movies go, THE MEG is one of the better ones. It’s a much stronger film than the recent 47 METERS DOWN (2017), and more fun than  THE SHALLOWS (2016).

That being said, it still pales in comparison to the Holy Grail of shark movies, JAWS (1975). It’s not intense like JAWS, and it’s certainly not realistic like JAWS. However, during the film’s third act, there are several nods to the 1975 Steven Spielberg classic.

THE MEG is a lot of fun, and as such, for a summer time popcorn movie, it comes highly recommended.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE SKULL (1965)

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Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in THE SKULL (1965).

 

Amicus Productions, the other horror film company from Great Britain that competed with Hammer Films in the 1960s-70s, is famous for their anthology horror movies, but one of their all time best horror films is not an anthology flick but one that tells a single story.

It’s THE SKULL (1965), starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and it’s one of the better horror films to come out of the 1960s, if not for anything else, for its original story.

Of course, it helps to have superior source material.  THE SKULL is based on the story “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade” by Robert Bloch.

THE SKULL (1965) tells the story of Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing), a collector of all things macabre, who is offered the skull of the Marquis de Sade by the shady buyer and seller Anthony Marco (Patrick Wymark). Not sure if he wants to add it to his collection or not, Maitland visits his friend Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee) to seek advice on the item’s authenticity and is shocked when Sir Matthew tells him it is the real deal because Marco stole it from him. When Maitland offers to help Sir Matthew get it back, Sir Matthew tells him he wants no part of it and warns Maitland against purchasing it, citing the skull’s dangerous supernatural powers. Maitland scoffs at his friend’s warning and even calls him a coward, saying he’d welcome the full force of the skull’s powers if they existed so he could write about them.

Maitland goes ahead and adds the skull to his collection.

You should have listened to your friend’s advice.

Because it turns out that the skull is indeed evil, and it leads to the death and destruction of everyone who comes in contact with it.

THE SKULL has a lot of things going for it, and it’s one of those movies that has aged well and holds up better today than when it first came out.

For starters, it’s one of the first Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee horror movies not to be a period piece. It’s set in modern times, and as such, as much as I enjoy all the period piece Hammer Films, THE SKULL plays like a breath of fresh air.

THE SKULL also gives Cushing and Lee a chance to appear in the same scenes together and actually hold some intriguing conversations. Prior to THE SKULL, most of their movie scenes together involved them dueling to the death, with Cushing’s hero usually gaining the upper hand over Lee’s monster. Here, they share some noteworthy scenes together. My favorite is their conversation over a game of pool where they argue over the power of the skull. With a little imagination it’s easy to perceive this scene as a dialogue between Baron Frankenstein and Scaramanga. It kinda has that feel.

There’s also a neat dream sequence— or is it?— where Cushing’s Maitland is whisked away by some weird gangster thugs and taken to a secret court where he’s forced to play russian roulette with a loaded pistol. It’s a bizarre sequence, but it really works.

The special effects here for a 1965 movie aren’t half bad.  The skull looks pretty cool, and the scenes shot from inside the skull, an idea conceived by director Freddie Francis, also work.

But what works against the movie, and in the past, used to prevent me from truly loving it, is it has pacing issues, especially towards the end, where there are long scenes of Peter Cushing sitting and staring at the skull, which are hardly all that thrilling.  There are a couple of reasons for this.

One, according to director Freddie Francis, the script by producer Milton Subotsky was largely unfinished and resembled more of an outline than a full-fledged screenplay. According to Francis, he had to add quite a bit to the film’s story to make it reach feature-length.

Also, while Freddie Francis directed a lot of movies, he’s more known for his cinematography, for films in the 1950s, and later, on such classics as THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980) and GLORY (1989). He’s not one of my favorite horror movie directors, although I did enjoy his work on DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968) which I think is his best horror movie.

But as I said, THE SKULL has aged well, and I regard it much more highly than I did say thirty years ago.

The pacing remains slow, but that seems to matter less now, because its scenes of horror have only gotten better. It opens with an extremely atmospheric graveyard scene which takes place in the 1800s, and so even though this one isn’t a period piece, it begins that way, which makes its switch to modern-day later all the more effective.

There’s something very intelligent and artistic about the entire production, and that’s the part that seems to have gotten better with age. The other notable thing about THE SKULL is it’s not a movie where the good guys win. The forces of darkness are the victors here. In fact, the entire movie seems to be seeped in an aura of evil. It really resonates.

And the film has a very strong cast.  Of course, you have Cushing and Lee, but they’re supported by folks like Patrick Wymark, Jill Bennett, Nigel Green, Patrick Magee, Peter Woodthorpe, and Michael Gough.

Peter Cushing always delivers a top-notch performance, although his best work is when he plays the hero or the villain. Here, as Christopher Maitland, he’s a flawed character who isn’t strong enough to fend off the powers of the skull, but as such, it’s rather refreshing to see him play this kind of role.

Christopher Lee’s Sir Matthew Phillips is largely a supporting role, but it is an excellent performance nonetheless. As many of Lee’s early performances so often were, it went largely unnoticed by critics, but he is quite good here as the man who, unlike Maitland, realizes just how dangerous the skull is and tries to tell his friend to walk away from the supernatural object.  Lee does a terrific job creating a character who shows both strength and fear.

Producer and writer Milton Subotsky had a vision for this film to be a feature-length horror movie with very little dialogue. He once said in an interview, “It’s a fantastic film and I think, will someday be considered a horror classic.”

It may have taken over 50 years, but I think Subotsky was right.

We’ve reached the point where we can safely call THE SKULL a classic horror movie from the 1960s.

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