IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: VIRAL (2016)

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Viral poster

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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LOGAN LUCKY (2017) – Light and Fun but Short on Laughter

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Logan-Lucky poster

Director Steven Soderbergh has enjoyed a long and varied career.  He’s made dramas [SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE (1989)], comedies [MAGIC MIKE (2012), science fiction [SOLARIS (2002), thrillers [SIDE EFFECTS (2013), and of course the George Clooney OCEAN 11 movies.

With LOGAN LUCKY (2017), Soderbergh returns to comedy in this lighthearted tale about two brothers planning an improbable heist at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. And while it appears that everyone involved is having a great time, it doesn’t always translate to full-throated laughter.

Things are not going well for Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum).  He loses his construction job because of a bad leg, and his ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) is about to move out-of-state with her new husband, which will make it more difficult for the out-of-work Jimmy to see his young daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) on a regular basis.

So, Jimmy plots with his bartender brother Clyde (Adam Driver) to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway. He chooses the race track because he had been working there on the construction crew repairing sink holes, and he had seen firsthand the vault underneath the stadium which holds the cash from the concession stands.

To pull off the heist, Jimmy and Clyde turn to the their friend Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), who is an expert at blowing open safes. Trouble is, Bang is in jail, and so Jimmy and Clyde concoct a plan to break Bang out of prison so he can do the job and then get him back inside again without anyone noticing. To do this, they employ the help of Bang’s two oddball brothers, Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson), as well as their own sister Mellie Logan (Riley Keough).

Then it’s off to the races, or so they hope.

LOGAN LUCKY reminded me a lot of a Coen brothers movie, only without the dark edges. It features quirky characters, puts them in some ridiculous situations, and lets things fly. The only difference is with a Coen brothers movie you expect something bad to happen, some bloodshed perhaps, while here, the loose ends are all tied together nicely, perhaps a bit too nicely.

Incredibly, the story manages to remain grounded in reality. In spite of how wildly inane the plot becomes, it all remains believable, and the characters in spite of their eccentricities remain real. It’s a smart script by Rebecca Blunt.

That being said, I wouldn’t have minded more zaniness, as the film isn’t as funny as it should be.  More laughs, and sharper ones, would have definitely made things better.

The story jumps back and forth between Jimmy’s West Virginia home and the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina, and the whole film is steeped in southern country atmosphere, helped along by Jimmy’s favorite song, John Denver’s “Country Roads.”

Director Soderbergh also gets the most out of his strong cast in LOGAN LUCKY.

I’m not a Channing Tatum fan, but he’s excellent here as Jimmy Logan.  He’s pretty much the straight man in the story, and while he’s surrounded by oddball characters and takes part in a ridiculous scheme, his character remains pretty real.  This might be my favorite Channing Tatum movie performance, mostly because it reminds me of nothing he has done before.

Likewise, Adam Driver excels as Jimmy’s brother Clyde.  Seriously, all Driver has to do in this movie is stand there and he gets laughs.  It’s a much more satisfying performance than his troubled Kylo Ren in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015).  I enjoyed Driver much more here.

And then there’s Daniel Craig as safe cracker Joe Bang, looking as far removed from James Bond here as ever, with his southern accent and quirky personality.  It’s probably the most fun performance by Craig- who always looks so serious- to date.  The scenes where Tatum, Driver, and Craig appear together are very funny, and the film soars during these moments, like the sequence where Joe Bang explains to Jimmy and Clyde the chemical formula for his bomb, writing the formula on the wall of the motor speedway tunnel and speaking to them as if he’s a classroom chemistry teacher.  But sadly there aren’t as many scenes with all three actors together as you might expect.

I’m quickly becoming a big fan of Riley Keough.  I first noticed her in the excellent horror movie IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017).  She’s superb again here as Jimmy’s and Clyde’s sister Mellie.  She’s wonderfully real, and terribly sexy at the same time.

Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson are also very good in smaller roles as Joe’s brothers Fish and Sam. Katie Holmes’ role as Jimmy’s ex-wife Bobbie Jo is pretty standard.

Two other stars appear in smaller roles.  Seth MacFarlane is unrecognizable with his long hair, mustache, and a beard in a thankless role as a NASCAR promoter and TV personality Max Chilblain. And Hilary Swank shows up late in the game as FBI Agent Sarah Grayson who investigates the heist.

When Swank’s FBI agent shows up to investigate the robbery, it’s at a point in the film where it naturally seems to be winding down, but it doesn’t, and it continues to go on for some time, a bit too long. The final reel of the film seems tacked on and unnecessary.

Other than this, LOGAN LUCKY is a well-made, well-directed, well-acted, and smartly written comedy that is light and enjoyable. The only thing missing, and it’s a big thing, is the laughter.  While I chuckled here and there, the comedy simply isn’t as sharp as it needs to be.

Granted, the film has its moments, but for a movie that feels like a screwball comedy, the limited laughter came as a surprise.  That being said, LOGAN LUCKY has an intelligent script that keeps things believable throughout, and with a solid cast delivering exceptional performances, it’s a hard movie to dislike.

I just wished I had laughed more.

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IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017) – Quiet Horror Movie Frighteningly Real

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IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017) is everything that the rebooted THE MUMMY (2017) is not.

It’s simple in its execution, it’s believable, it’s frightening, and its depiction of horror on the big screen is as pure as it gets.  The only thing the two films have in common is they opened on the same weekend.

IT COMES AT NIGHT takes place during a time when some unknown disease has crippled the world, thrusting people into heavy-duty survival mode.  We meet a family of three, the father Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) just as they’re dealing with Travis’ grandfather Bud (David Pendleton), who has succumbed to the disease.  They perform a mercy killing and then burn the body.

The family lives inside a house which they keep locked and boarded up, and they don’t venture outside without gas masks.  With all contact with the outside world shut down, they can only guess as to what is going on.  All they know is that infections happen and people die.

Things are relatively calm for them until one night a man named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their home.  When they learn that he has a wife and young son, they debate whether or not they should invite them inside.  On the one hand, they know it’s best not to trust anyone, but on the other hand there is safety in numbers, especially since the surrounding woods are seen as threatening, as no one knows what is really happening, other than people will do anything to survive.

They decide to invite Will and his family into their home, and the two families work together, until the inevitable matter of trust or lack thereof begins to rear its head and mess with their minds.

IT COMES AT NIGHT is an example of movie making at its finest.  Writer/director Trey Edward Shults has taken a simple straightforward story— it’s basically THE WALKING DEAD without the zombies, and in fact, shares the intensity of the show’s best episodes— and made it compelling and frightening, all without gimmicks or special effects.

The best part about this movie is Shults’ directorial style.  The bulk of the action takes place inside the boarded up home, and as such makes for a very claustrophobic experience.  The audience definitely shares the feelings of isolation with the characters.

The film is quiet and unassuming.  There are no major special effects or extreme scenes of violence and carnage, yet the suspense is high throughout.  A walk into the surrounding woods at night is a sweat-inducing experience.  The camera stays in close with characters, who we get to know and care for.

And that’s because Shults’ screenplay is a good one.  He creates three-dimensional characters who we care about, and so as the movie goes along and lines are drawn between the families, you don’t want to see either family harmed.  It makes for some wince-inducing storytelling.

It also creates a threat— an unknown disease— that works as a major menace in the movie even though we know absolutely nothing about it, other than it kills.  It puts the audience in the same place as the characters, and it works wonderfully.

Joel Edgerton, an actor I like a lot, is very good here as the head of the household, Paul. He trusts no one and armed with a shotgun will kill without hesitation to protect his family, but he also is extremely sensitive and caring towards his son Travis.  He goes out of his way to explain to Travis why he does certain things and why these difficult decisions have to be made.  Travis comes off as a dedicated family man who must do whatever it takes to protect his family.

I’ve seen Edgerton in a bunch of movies, and I’ve pretty much enjoyed him in all of them, from his role as Tom Buchanan in THE GREAT GATSBY (2013), to his fine work opposite Johnny Depp in BLACK MASS (2015), to his battling aliens in the rebooted THE THING (2011).  Edgerton’s work here is as good as ever.

Carmen Ejogo, who played Coretta Scott King in SELMA (2014) and who also just starred in ALIEN: COVENANT (2017), plays Paul’s wife and Travis’ mom, Sarah.  She’s sufficiently serious and thoughtful.  No one in this film is a loose cannon or an idiot.  As such, you care about them all.

Christopher Abbott does a nice job as Will, the man who breaks into their home and then claims he was just looking for supplies for his wife and little son.  Abbott makes Will a fine three-dimensional character.  There’s something less than trustworthy about him, yet he does have that family, and the suspicion about him could certainly stem from his own agenda, that he has his own family to take care of.  Again, it puts the audience in the same seat with Paul- do you trust Will, or not?

Also excellent is Riley Keough as Will’s young wife Kim.  Like the rest of the cast, she creates a three-dimensional character.  Kim is also involved in a sub-plot where teen Travis develops a crush on her, and the two share some very interesting scenes.  Keough, by the way, is the daughter of Lisa Marie Presley, making her the granddaughter of Elvis Presley and Priscilla Presley.

And Kelvin Harrison Jr. really stands out as Travis.  For most of the film, Travis is a quiet introspective young man who is very sensitive.  We see the horror of what’s going on in their world through his eyes.  It makes some of the film’s more disturbing scenes all the more powerful as we experience them along with Travis.

Travis is also prone to having vivid dreams, several of which make for some frightening moments in the movie.  The dreams are symbolic of the dreams of youth, although in this case, they are all dark and nightmarish, showing us firsthand that this is now the world that young Travis has been left with.

It’s also worth noting that the family here is of mixed race.  Paul is white and Sarah is black.  While refreshing, it’s also the type of thing that needs to happen more and more in the movies, and when it does, it’s important to celebrate it.

While I loved IT COMES AT NIGHT, it does have some flaws, and I can see how some people might be disappointed by it.  For one thing, the threat here is never explained, and while I didn’t have a huge problem with this, had the film taken that next step and immersed us into a specific threat, it might have been a stronger movie.

I saw it with an audience full of teenagers, and when it ended, they were vocally disappointed. Someone said, “It comes at night?  Nothing came!”  I wanted to lean over and say in my best Donald Pleasence voice, “Death came at night.”  Because, really, at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.  The specific threat isn’t important.  If the characters aren’t careful, they’re going to die.

IT COMES AT NIGHT shares a similar tone and feel with the quiet zombie movie MAGGIE (2015), starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, but I liked IT COMES AT NIGHT much better because it packs a bigger punch with its horror elements and with the suspense.

If you like your horror pure and simple, without convoluted stories or  overblown special effects or gratuitous blood and gore, if you simply like to be scared, and to watch a story about characters you care about thrown into a situation which puts them in extreme danger, then IT COMES AT NIGHT is the movie for you.

It’s the type of horror movie that’s good for the genre, a horror film, like the recent GET OUT (2017), that makes horror fans proud.

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