Becky

Hallelujah, the drought is broken, at least for a bit.  It has been 87 days since I saw a movie in a theater, and it was driving me a little mad. I know others have sacrificed so much more than I in this pandemic, but I can only speak to my pain, and not going to the movies was incredibly painful to me. Sure, it’s not like a disease, but ask anyone who gives up those things they love, it means something to them. Fortunately my addition is relatively innocuous so there was no physical danger, just mental anguish. How did this dam finally burst, especially since movie theaters are still not open? It’s simple, there is an nearly outdated concept called a “Drive-In”. It’e been twenty years since I went to a “Drive-In” theater, and that was for a special event for a local radio program at Halloween. It was twelve years prior to that when I last saw a regular feature at a drive-in. Yesterday, I saw a post while I happened to be on Facebook, and when I clicked the link, there was a trailer and information about where the movie was playing locally. That is if you think of 20 miles away as being local. I will get to the review in just a minute but a few more words about the Drive-In first.

The show was scheduled to start at 8:30 pm, so I left the house at &;30, and arrived at the destination pretty much ten before 8. The line of cars was four lanes wide, and backed up a block. It took twenty-five minutes to pay and get into the screening area. This complex had four screens, every screen had a full lot under the social distancing rules of one empty space on each side. So they could only be at 1/3 of their capacity. The line for the bathroom was slow and longer than most lines at Disneyland. The concession stand was also a long line, so I skipped both. I missed having popcorn more than trying to relieve myself, fortunately I was not in need as many others were.

Okay, enough about the experience, let’s talk about the movie. “Becky” is perfect Drive-In fare. It reminded me of some of the grindhouse style films that I did see in those venues when I was young and went to Drive-Ins regularly. It is a nasty piece of survival/revenge porn, that finds the most awful ideas, shows them to you, slathers on some blood, and then serves it up with enough inventiveness to make you cheer when the bad guys get their comeuppance. The premise is simple, a thirteen year old girl has to fight back against neo-Nazi escaped convicts. It is exploitation material, but it was not as lurid as many things you may have seen.

The cast features comedic actor  Joel McHale, best known for the TV series “Community” , in a straight dramatic part as the father of 13 year old Becky. The two of them have been struggling since the death of her Mother, and he is trying to move on to a new relationship but Becky is having none of it. They cross paths with the ruthless Dominick, an Aryan Brotherhood type who has lead a band of four escaped prisoners to the cabin of Becky and her dad, They are seeking a key, which turns out to be a McGuffin, simply used to bring the victims into the sights of the predators. Dominick is played by another comedic actor form TV, Kevin James. The two sitcom actors acquit themselves fairly well in the dramatic roles, though James gets the meatier part and has a chance to ham it up a little bit.

The star of the film is Lulu Wilson, who I did not know but I have seen in “The Haunting of Hill House” net series. The character of Becky is traumatized from the death of her Mom, she is in rage at the choices her father is making about her life and his own, and finally, she has reached puberty and at the age of 13 has all the resentment and anger that that stage in life often brings. When you couple that with the traumas she witnesses on this weekend visit to the family cabin, you can begin to believe she is capable of doing some of the things that the story has her executing. Imagine Kevin McCallister, only without the comedy and you will get the idea. I poke in the eye in this film does not result in three stooges guffaws, but rather dangling eyeballs that will have to be operated on with blunt instruments in the kitchen. Motorboating will not be a sex game played between a woman’s breasts. Plowing the field is also not going to feel the same after witnessing this. Maybe the Joker can make a pencil disappear without all the blood, but Becky can get a lot of blood from pencils and especially a ruler.

Sure there are a few things that don’t make much sense. For instance, the movie starts like so many films do these days, at the epilogue instead of the beginning of the narration. We never know why the key is supposed to be in the house, or how Becky came to have it. It is also hard to believe that the little girl is strong enough to overcome at least some of the men in this film. The one sympathetic bad guy, played by wrestler turned actor Robert Maillet. Frankly, if I saw that guy coming for me, I’d lose it instantly, he is a monster. Surprisingly, he is a somewhat sympathetic character in the film. Ultimately, no one gets out of the scenario unscarred, and I guess that is the point. Well not really, the point is to take pleasure in the horrible things that happen to the horrible people. Some of the films playing on the other screens were comedies or Academy quality dramas. I was happy to be enjoying an exploitation film in its natural habitat. I almost felt like I was back in mine. Hopefully soon, but till then, all hail the drive in.

Underwater

If you were to make a list of signs that a movie is in potential trouble, one of the first things that will jump out at you is the timeline from filming to release. “Underwater” was filmed in 2017, this is 2020, that means it has been percolating for three years. A second indicator that you are in trouble is that you have a horror film opening in January. The first month of the year is the graveyard of the dregs for new releases. It is for counter programming to the big holiday releases that are still playing and collecting on their critical acclaim. Studios notoriously put films they have no faith in out at this time of year. Horror films often are the pawns in a game of movie release chess and they are sacrificed at this time all the time. Finally, Kristen Stewart, action star, is just not a description that anyone will pull out of their memory. So “Underwater” has a few strikes against it before the lights go down.

On the other hand, there were some rumors from early punters that it is better than you would expect.  I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned “Rotten Tomatoes” as a resource for any review I have ever done on this site, but “Underwater” was rated “Fresh” on the web site for the ticket purchase, so as I always do, I hoped for the best. Francis Bacon said “Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper.” My dinner this evening was not very good. I can’t say the film is terrible, but I can tell you it is not good, and there are several reasons.

To start with the first failing, the story attempts something that just doesn’t work very well. Most films like this set up the characters by letting us meet them in the normal course of their lives. We usually get a map of the environment so we can get a fix on the eventual horizon. There will be some foreshadowing which increases the tension before the main story begins. “Underwater” eschews this approach, plunging us into the story without any set up except some cryptic headlines briefly flashed on the screen during the credit sequence. We know nothing about the job, the technology or the people before disaster strikes. So the film is going to depend on spectacle to draw us in, and this is a story set almost seven miles underwater, where there is no light and no horizon. We can’t really tell what has happened to the station that the characters are on, except from the inside, and it looks like any other building collapse interior you have seen in a movie.

When we finally do get a set of six characters set up in an escape plan, you can pretty much say who is going to die and the order in which they are going to go. This is a horror film that is so conventional that it reinforces one of the oldest tropes a a black character in horror. This is a concept that has been parodied in horror comedies for years.  I’ll let you figure out everything else, but if you have seen an action disaster film or horror film in the last fifty years, you will know. At least with “Alien” we got to care about those characters before their demise.

The dialogue in the film is almost imperceptible at times. Vincent Cassel’s accent is laid on a little thick at times and everyone else practically whispers. Meanwhile, the dialogue and exposition are drown out by the cacophony of alarms, explosions and screaming. The exposition is so vague that we have no idea what the goal is that we should be rooting for. I guess we are just supposed to hope that they don’t all die, but it is not clear before what. T.J. Miller, whose presence is another indicator of how long ago this movie was made, could easily be mistaken for playing the same part as he did in “Cloverfield”. When we finally get the reveal of what is out there in the murky water, it looks like a prequel to that creature feature.

One other way that the film sinks to mediocrity, is by splicing on an environmentalist theme and then adding a dollop of corporate conspiracy to finish off the recipe. The end credits suggest more elements to the story that never appeared to be critical to what was happening. You can’t just retro fit the movie which has played out with some theme that makes no sense.   Anyway, I am a sucker for crappy January films. So far this is my best film of the year and my worst. Let’s see how it all pans out when “Dolittle” arrives in a week.

Movies I Want Everyone to See: Eight Legged Freaks

[Originally Published on Fog’s Movie Reviews, Fall 2013]

Here is a Halloween Special for you all.

There is a long history of movies where nature strikes back at the human world. From the “Island of Lost Souls” to “The Happening”, Mother Nature proves that she is not someone to be messed with. (Although running away from the wind may just be the one way to mess with her that would cause her to crack up and just stop trying to wipe us out). The most fertile period of time for these far fetched stories was the post war atomic age when exposure to radiation causes giant ants, killer rabbits, and irritated amphibians. In the lengthy annals of horror films featuring monsters that are simply real creatures pushed to the brink, no animal, fish or insect has been more widely used to terrify us than the spider. Most people instinctively withdraw their hands from proximity to a spider. The hair on the back of our necks raises at the thought of one normal spider crawling across our flesh. It is therefore no surprise that out sized spiders have been a go-to critter whenever a film maker is looking for a way to scare us. Our fear of spiders is also something that is regularly mocked. In “Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s character jokes ” Honey, there’s a spider in your bathroom the size of a Buick.” It is this combination of the frightening and the ridiculous that makes “Eight Legged Freaks” a movie that I want everyone to see.

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This 2002 horror comedy has a enough to recommend it despite being cheesy as hell and way over the top. While there are a couple of legitimate scares and  plenty of creepiness to make this a fun horror film for anyone who doesn’t want their terror too gory, the biggest selling point is the humor. This film is a hoot and should give you a couple of laughs to brush off the ickiness of watching spiders. Most of the laughs are intended unlike some other films in this unique category. A small dying Arizona town ends up being over run by spiders that have  been contaminated by toxic waste.  It seems a spider wrangler named Joshua is planning on making a fortune selling these quickly growing arachnids to collectors and spider enthusiasts. The creepy Joshua is played by genre veteran Tom Noonan. His friendship with the bright preteen son of the local sheriff allows a little time for exposition on the spiders and their habits, once that is done, exit Joshua after providing a convenient start to the story. There is not much doubt that we will need that information later, because we get some nice quick little illustrations of what each breed of spider is capable of. Unfortunately, young Mike falls into “Wesley Crusher” syndrome and becomes the one source of knowledge that anyone needs for the rest of the movie.

Stills-eight-legged-freaks-2002-23442581-2100-1377 Mike’s mother is the sheriff and she has eyes for the  returning son of the deceased owner of the local mine. A largely superfluous romantic plot that gives star David Arquette something more to do when he is not reacting to big damn spiders.

Most of the plot details don’t matter because the movie is an excuse to use CGI spiders that are huge and have them do creepy things to the locals. The number of other films referenced here is pretty substantial. There is a “Dawn of the Dead” vibe based around the location the locals choose to make their stand against the spiders. “Gremlins” is cribbed from as the spiders begin to overtake the town. The 1950s creature features are acknowledged with a clip from “Them!” playing on the TV in the background of one scene. “Eight Legged Freaks” plays out sometimes like a Frankenstein version of a horror film with a part inserted here and some leftover ideas from there being added on.

So if the movie is derivative and it is not really scary, what is it that would make you need to see it? The answer is twofold; fun shots of CGI Spiders and occasional Three Stooges type humor. The weaker of the two elements are the jokes. It is a hit or miss proposition, For every well placed L.Ron Hubbard crack, there is a bad piece of camera mugging by one of the actors. There is a cute oblique reference to a Monty Python Parrot sketch and then at some other point there is a slightly unfunny double take done by Doug E. Doug. Arquette actually ad-libbed his line about the big bugs being “eight legged freaks” and it is one of the pieces of dialogue that works and it became the title of the film as a result. If only all of the script’s dialogue had had that sense of crazy frustration. There are a few too many Alien conspiracy jokes that involve anal probes. The film is directed at a tween audience, so there are romantic subplots and potty humor. This would be a pretty good Halloween Film for your 8 to 12 year old kids.

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The stronger argument for seeing the film concerns the spider shots. There are some cool ideas that work despite the ancient CGI technology involved. At one point a teen is being chased by spiders that can jump twenty yards at a time, he rides his motorbike through the hills and makes a jump himself that has a fun kick to it. Of course a dozen other kids get taken and are never heard from or referenced again. This is a comedy after all not really a horror show. The old barber who take refuge in the sporting goods shop, is followed by an animated tent across the floor of the store. It is a corny joke that works because none of this is being taken seriously. Even the sections where you don’t actually see the spiders are visually interesting. Trap door spiders start taking down ostriches at a local ranch and the vanishing birds are the punchline. There is a great showdown between a cat and one of the big spiders that takes place inside the walls of the deputies home. It is visualized in an amusing way and it sets the tone for the film early in the stages of the spider invasion.

Stills-eight-legged-freaks-2002-23442634-2100-1153The initial stages of the spider invasion feels like that section of “Gremlins” when the gruesome little monsters take over the town. All hell breaks loose and there are panicked citizens running through the streets. Some people get wiped out and others stare in disbelief as it happens. Then they run and some comic bit with a spider trying to eat a stuffed moose-head is inserted. The lead up to the town being over run is sometimes not as fun as it should be but once the shooting of spiders starts the mayhem turns into the goofy monster-fest the film has wanted to be from the beginning.

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The last act of the film features a march of arachnids not seen since “Starship Troopers”. Hundreds of giant spiders crawl over the screen and the locals try to shoot, squash, stab, fry and puncture them. Plenty of green splatter fills the edges of the movie, instead of the blood that would be there from the humans being shredded. The use of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” as a musical motif keeps things light in spite of the dozens of casualties the townsfolk run up during the attack.

As I re-watched this, I experienced many cringe worthy moments of humor that failed and acting that isn’t. The kids in the movie are wooden, including a very young Scarlett Johansson. Her next movie would feature that shot of her behind that opens “Lost in Translation”, but here she is playing a little younger and sexy is not really the mood they were looking for. David Arquette is better suited for a role like the weird deputy in “Scream” than he is for playing action hero. Doug E. Doug and Rick Overton are the comic relief and both of them mug shamelessly for the camera. The human element is not the movies strong suit.  Don’t worry though because big ass spiders are coming and once they start overrunning the town, you will have a pretty fun time.

There are better horror films and there are better horror comedies. “Arachnophobia” may be the best analogous movie but it lacks spiders  the size of a tank and visuals of people being dragged off and spun into webs. Even though this is the mildest recommendation I have yet made for “Movies I Want Everyone to See”, there is something that makes me push the button for this movie. It’s probably just that I’m tickled by shots like this:Wallpaper-eight-legged-freaks-2002-23442625-800-600

Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.

Ready or Not

Human beings are incredibly complex animals. While it is true that we have the same basic physical characteristics as other animals, for the moment, we are the only ones who can create elaborate stories to amuse ourselves. The detail, intricacy and inventiveness of some stories is amazing. The MCU has woven together twenty or so films so that ideas are connected in fairly logical ways. That is amazing. What is also amazing are the premises that we can invent for a story to exist in. “Ready or Not” doesn’t have the internal logic of a comic book universe. It does not unify a variety of different story lines into a coherent single narrative like some films attempt to do [ex: Babel, Crash etc.]. This movie has only one idea, but it is a pretty good one. New members of a rich family must participate in a game ritual before they are truly accepted into the clan. That’s all, except of course it isn’t.

As a device for entertaining us, “Ready or Not” is a morbid little piece of film making that takes it’s premise seriously, in spite of how preposterous it is. There are exit strategies available to the young couple which would abrogate all that follows, but that would deny us the pleasure of seeing the premise play out. So forget how the rules are supposed to work. Don’t worry about internal consistency. Just sit back and watch the mayhem, root for the heroine and laugh at the gruesome macabre sense of humor that the story tellers have come up with.  Samara Weaving , a doppelganger for  Margot Robbie, plays Grace, the bride who is joining the eccentric and ultimately evil Le Domas family. Once the trap has been sprung, the movie is a series of escapes, close calls, character reveals and assorted Road Runner/Coyote antics, all with a heavy dose of violence.

The nice part of the story is we will actually like Grace. She is not a gold digger, she just happened to fall in love with the wrong man. The collection of misfits in the family is fun to watch because their privilege is so clearly on the surface and so exaggerated, no one will take this as a serious commentary on the haves and the have nots.  If you read a review of this movie that takes that point of view, be careful, the author is just of it and you are being indoctrinated rather than informed by reading such clap trap. This is purely a work of imagination, a disturbed imagination, but certainly one that wants to amuse us rather than comment on the world around us. Grace discovers her situation, takes an appropriate amount of time to adjust to it, and then acts in a way that any of us might try as well. She continues to be a sound human being, and each time the horrible people she is up against try to take advantage of that. When at the end, the nature of the family “curse/agreement” is explained, it may seem over the top, but remember, this is just a story to entertain you.

The family is filled with quirky Aunts, entitled parents, climbing nephews and nieces, and some pretty unsympathetic help. This is another one of the places that makes little sense given the rules established in the story. Why the housekeepers and butler would be part of the ritual is not really explained, but why are you asking? This is about playing a game for no reason other than the fun of it. When random characters are dispatched by accident we will laugh at the sadistic way the writers found to visualize it on screen. As we see how inept some of the family is, we will be amused when those are the people who cause the mistakes or suffer the consequences of said mistakes.  All that we want is to keep rooting for the sympathetic Grace and wait for the comeuppance the family is earning for itself. The twists and turns are what this is all about.

Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell and Adam Brody are faces I know from other films and that may be why they leave the biggest impression. Czerny is the cavalier head of the family who can’t believe that anyone might challenge the established order of their universe. He also is the exasperated voice of the family when the unfortunate relatives screw up. MacDowell has moved from being the ingenue in the story, to being the main romantic lead, and now to the matron role that aging actresses get saddled with. The false sympathy she conveys shows that she has grown as an actress, who had to be dubbed in her first film, to someone who is competent in conveying a character, regardless of how realistic that character is. Adam Brody is on the brink of outgrowing the young callow characters he is playing in most things, but he got more to do in this film than he did in “Shazam!” earlier this year.

It says something about people when they can invent the scenario that comes up here. It might say even more about us that we could be amused by that scenario. This is a dark hearted comedy thriller. If you have the kind of sensibility that allows for you to laugh a a stranger’s unfortunate demise, then you will probably enjoy this film. If you require that a story be logically consistent and exist in a real world scenario, better you stay away. If you have a sick appreciation of the absurd however, you will find this movie a romp right down your alley. Now all we have to do, is figure out which kind of player you are.

It Chapter Two

Two years ago, the trailer for “It” built enough anticipation to make a slightly above average horror film, into a monster hit. That original trailer showed us next to nothing, other than the scene that introduces us to Pennywise the clown, in the gutter, tempting little Georgie. When the rest of the film showed up, it could not live up to that terrifying and suspenseful three minutes. They certainly tried with some clever effects and good performances from the young cast. Fans of the book knew there was more coming and naturally Chapter Two was a forgone conclusion.

The pattern repeats itself here. The first film gives us the promise of something special, and we waited two years for it. What we got was pretty average and not nearly as scary as that original trailer for the first film. The trailers for this movie also gave away too many of the creepy moments that would work better as a surprise.

I will say that the opening of the film works very well. A brutal confrontation with small town bigots actually makes us wish for Pennywise to show up and dispatch these a**holes as soon as possible, but first we are reminded about how evil the clown is, and that his return under any circumstances would not be desirable. After a few chilling images that suggest things have started up again, we get a basic quest film story. First the heroes must gather, most reluctantly. Then each of them has to complete a quest individually, in order to proceed to battle, and then finally they all have to come together and work as a team. If you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it a thousand times.

Probably because the book was so dense, there is some exposition that has to be rushed. It sure seems awkward when one character basically roofies another with psychedelic activated natural juices to get him to share his visions. It was also unclear why, after all the losers have gathered and been subjected to a psychic attack from Pennywise, that they still need to be convinced. The idea that their memories have faded after leaving town is an interesting one but not very well explored. Since the film ends up being the better part of three hours anyway, maybe trim the bloated visual effects at the end, and build and solve this mystery at the beginning.

The individual quests are reasonably entertaining, but there is an element of repetitiveness to them. After the first jump scare with a truly disturbing visual effect, the subsequent experience are a series of diminishing returns that rob the story of any drive and frequently take us down a path of confusion that is never really developed or needed. Jessica Chastain as the grown version ofthe lone girl in the first film is fine.  Bev’s trip down memory lane was the standout in this set of moments, but it was also the one that was featured in the original teaser trailer so that the only surprize is the last minute creature effect that gives us a jump scare. Maybe I’m a little jaded having watched two other horror films the day before, but I had none of the anticipation of dread that filled the first film.

There is a running joke about how Bill played by James McAvoy, as a grown man who is now an author of thrillers, is not very good at creating endings for his story. We get that joke at least three times, including a delivery of the punchline by the actual author of this story. I suppose the point of this was to prepare us for the let down of an ending we get here. The best moments of emotional satisfaction in the relationships between the characters, get drowned out by an overblown CGI sequence which features the cast chanting a message that feels pretty hollow. It also goes on, and on. Some many things that had to be condensed, were reduced to give us more of this, the least interesting and frightening part of the film. The coda has some nice moments, Bill Hader steals most of the movie and there is a clever bookend that ties in to the introduction, but the voice over material is overwrought and goes on far too long as well.

“It Chapter Two” is a disappointment from a horror perspective but it is visually inventive and there are a few jump scares that will probably satisfy fans. I really wanted to like it better. Unfortunately, that was true of the original film as well. The adult casting of the kids from the original is solid. Those kids are also back in a series of flashback points that elaborate on the end of the first film and fill in some narrative spots for this story.

Crawl

I love it when a movie lives up to your expectations, no matter how low they might be. This is a horror, thriller that doesn’t pretend to have some deep comment about global warming or the place on animals in human habitats. Let people who want to argue about the right of coyotes to wander freely in suburban neighborhoods have their conversation someplace else. This movie is simple. Take some sympathetic characters, put them in jeopardy, and try to scare the crap out of the audience. Very basic and there are no supernatural elements to it, so those skeptics out there when it comes to ghost stories don’t have to worry, because this stuff is real [or at least as real as you can expect in a movie.]

There are a dozen or so people listed in the cast but in reality, this is a two person story. Haley, a college student on the swimming team travels back home looking for her father, as a massive hurricane is about to hit Florida. They end up trapped in the basement of their old house, battling alligators who have moved in with the rising flood waters. The premise sells itself, this is a high concept low budget feature. Man against nature is a recurring theme in lots of films, often with a philosophical bent to the plot line. “The Grey” and “The Edge” are two examples that come to mind. There are however lots of examples of movies that do the same thing without any metaphysics or spiritual overtone. Last summer we got “The Meg” which is simply a giant shark movie. A few years ago, there was “Bait” about a similar circumstance with people trapped in a department store after a tidal wave and sharks going after them. These movies are only interested in scaring you for ninety minutes and giving you a reason to eat popcorn in public.

Barry Pepper plays the Dad, who is a perpetual cheerleader for his daughter and pushed her as she was learning to become a champion swimmer. The relationship is a little strained because the parents broke up and Haley thinks it’s her fault because he neglected Mom to boost her career. That is just filler for the moments when we are catching our breath between gator attacks. This is a movie filled with jump scares and dramatic plot complications every five minutes.  Every time a little hope creeps in, the gators in the story manage to crush it, and if the gators don’t then the hurricane does. Admittedly, this is a movie that strains credibility in a few places. Our heroes get injured in ways that most of us would go into shock over and maybe end up in a coma. These two just strap up their limbs and keep fighting on. I turned to my own daughter right after the film and said, “Yeah, we’d be dead.”

The creativity in this story is primarily based around building up one objective after another, figuring out how to overcome it, throwing in a plot complication and then adding a visual moment of terror. It works over and over. Kaya Scodelario gamely crawls through mud, effuse, rats and body parts as Haley. She is also fine in the non-action scenes as well but she got her check from submitting to some pretty grueling physical scenes. Pepper has a few moments in the last quarter of the movie, but he is mostly immobile in the first part of the film. Credulity is also tested when he has to do some of the physical stuff and his character has been hampered by substantial injuries but he carries on anyway.

 There are a half dozen other actors in the movie, but as you can probably guess, they are grist for the gator mill and those moments are satisfying from a horror fans perspective. Let’s just say that what happens to the unfortunate soul who gets caught by a mob of zombies, is not too different from what happens here. Oh, and because the movie is pretty simple and standard in it’s story telling, there is also a dog for you to worry about throughout the ordeal. I like “B” movies that work well and are well made and “Crawl” fits the bill to a tee. So it’s not “Jaws”, instead it’s a faster paced, better version of “Jaws 2”. I just wish I’d been able to see it at a drive-in.

Us

Back in 1998, M.Night Shyamalan was dubbed the second coming of either Hitchcock or Spielberg.  With his well crafted thriller “The Sixth Sense” he restored our faith in what a good horror movie could be and he provided a twist ending that still impresses twenty years and a million spoilers later. He made two more solid films before he tripped with “The Village” and then fell flat on his face with “Lady in the Water”. But it took “The Happening” for audiences to laugh him off the screen and write him off for the next decade. Director Jordan Peele was favorably compared to Shyamalan after his clever and very successful “Get Out” showed up two years ago. It also restored our faith in grown up horror stories and had similar kinds of plot twist moments. Peele however has skipped the next phase of the Shyamalan career, a couple of less successful but still credible films, and he has instead taken a dump that makes “The Happening” look like a modern classic.

I cannot express how disappointed I was at this film as I was watching it unfold. This is a miscalculation by someone who is clearly talented but did not seem to have anything to say with his next film project. “Get Out” had something to show us about race relations and class in a post Obama world. It was also creepy as hell for the first hour and incredibly intense in the second. “Us” does not have the benefit of a whole hour of slow burn, it shoots it’s wad in the first ten minutes and then never reaches another moment as effectively again. Oh, and the set up that had the brief flash of excitement and fright to it, was not that great in the opening anyway, which made the movie all the less interesting as it went along. If there is some cultural, political or dramatic concept that this movie is trying to make or subvert, it fails on every point.

A horror movie can make you laugh at a moment as a release from some tension or thrill that it provides. The catharsis such a moment brings is just what an audience wants. If a horror movie is making you laugh at it’s premise and the stupidity of the events in the story, you have a bad horror film. That is what you get with this. If you have seen the trailer, you know that a doppelganger family appears to start a home invasion story with our protagonist family. The moment one of those characters starts to speak I had to suppress a laugh, but when another character starts uttering call back sounds, it not only is guffaw inducing, it is ludicrous.  If you are not being terrified by a horror film, why are you watching it? That’s the question I started to ask myself along the way. I also asked myself how much worse it could get, and the answer was…a lot.

The actors do their best, Lupita Nyong’o in the lead duo role is effective, but her doppelganger character is given some silly exposition to deliver and it is presented in a voice that instead of being frightening, makes you want to get her some Nyquil for her stuffy nose. Winston Duke fairs better but not by much. He fortunately spends less time in the doppelganger role and he also comes the closest to being a real person in the story. He is a goofball of a Dad, which is of course the preferred way to present an adult male in a family these days. He says the wrong thing to calm down his wife, he is a bit of a joke to his kids, and the whole powerboat subplot exits to create a single scene that allows him to have a moment of success by accident.

If you stretch your imagination enough, there might be some kind of social commentary about keeping up with appearances. The family friends that they connect with seem like cardboard cutout shallow people. Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker feel unpleasant from the moment that we meet them. Their twin daughters are stereotyped mean girls without actually doing anything mean. When the story shifts to them for a few minutes in the middle of the film, it has no tension to it and it only feels different in how quickly events play out and how well everything is lit because they have a back up power generator and the other family does not.

You want to know that you are getting into a bad film that takes itself too seriously, look for an opening scroll that tries to tell you that there is some real idea behind the hoopla. If you think that abandoned subways and tunnels are the lurking places of the bogey man, then maybe you can be convinced that this story is real, HA. Remember how Mark Wahlberg spent an hour running away from the wind in “The Happening”? And do you recall how you laughed out loud when you found out the monsters are the trees? Well that resolution is brilliant compared to the explanation we get here. I have not found rabbits so silly since bugs bunny, and the fear factor in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” is eons ahead of this. There is of course a final twist that makes everything that came earlier seem even more preposterous.

In fairness I have to admit that I have not cared for two celebrated horror films of the last few years. “Hereditary” had a lot of visual spark to it but the storytelling fell apart for me. “Cabin in the Woods” is a joke that might work for twenty minutes but takes two hours to get to the punchline. Those movies had moments but “Us” did not work for me at all.  Let’s hope that Jordan Peele doesn’t screw up “The Twilight Zone” and that his next movie stays out of the water [like M. Night should have done.]

A Quiet Place

Here is a film that has no more than a half dozen characters. There are maybe twelve lines of dialogue in the film. For the first third of the movie there really is no score. And the film manages to build suspense, create character and provide enough exposition for us to understand what is going on. That my friends is a well written story. There may be a couple of plot holes or inconsistencies but once the idea has grabbed a hold of you, it does not let go until the end. Maybe you can worry about minor quibbles after you catch your breath and relax your body and grip on the armrest. Director and co-screenwriter John Krasinski has made a modern horror classic. It is limited on gore but rich in suspense and ideas.

The premise of the film is set up very nicely in the introduction of the film. There is a screen shot that mentions a day count, but that is all. Everything else is laid out for us in silence. The children are kids, but one of them is sick. The older sister is enjoying shopping in the venue but is also watching out for her youngest brother. The parents are attentive to not making a sound and when a potential noise disaster is averted, everyone seems to heave a sigh of relief. It is just kids being kids that leads to a disaster and starts us into the darker paths of the story.

Millicent Simmonds is a tween actress who has to carry much of the story. She is a deaf girl playing a deaf girl but that is just appropriate casting, it does not diminish the performance. She has to convey the attitude of a burgeoning teen with facial expressions and shoulder shrugs. She nails it. There is a shadow of guilt that haunts her and during the course of the film, she pulls away from her father a bit because of how she thinks he sees her. Krasinski as the father in the story is as loving as a parent can be, but the self talk that only a teen can create is the focus of this relationship. There are two resolutions in the film, one for the personal relationship and one for the horrifying threat that the family faces. They are tied together by the same device, but Krasinski has written himself a heroic moment that will pull at you like crazy. When Simmonds realizes how she has mistaken her father, despite all the evidence of his love her, it is a great acting moment from the young star of the movie.

Everything in the film depends on the family remaining silent. The plot element that challenges this need the most sets up the climax of the film. This is where Emily Blunt gives one of the greatest horror film performances ever. She is not simply reacting to what happens, she is at the center of these events. The courage of a mother was shown to be a spectacular character arc in “Aliens”, well this one could easily sit beside that film. The story adds tension upon misstep, followed by relief and then even greater tension. Half of this is played out on the face of the lead actress. The rest she manages in a physical performance that had to be very challenging. The final image of her in the movie will make you glad you sat thru the previous ninety minutes.

OK, there are a few plot problems concerning electricity and the parents key decisions regarding the family. The focus on their farm makes sens but there seems to be an attempt to contact others in multiple ways, and we don’t exactly know what that is supposed to accomplish. Human beings inevitably make noise other than speaking, and while the film meticulously shows us the efforts made by the family to keep quiet, a draft in the Spring could sent this out the window in an instant, and no real answer is ever provided for such inconsistencies. None of that really matters however because the slowly building tension and the moments of suspense keep us enthralled and that’s what a horror film should do. That the film also addresses issues of love and redemption make it all the more powerful. You can expect to see this film on my end of the year list. If I were not so afraid of shouting after seeing this, I’d shout at all of you who haven’t gone to a theater yet.

Willard (1971)

Well, it took almost 40 years. But I got to see Willard again in its original form. Shout factory and Scream have released the film in a special package which includes a DVD and Blu Ray and it has a second audio track with actor Bruce Davison. So that it is actually is a very special of presentation of the film. The only previous video releases that have been available were a VHS edition that ais long, long been out of print. There was as well  a laser disc version that was all pan and scan and it is also been out of print for a long time. It has never been released on DVD before and the only dvd versions were copies of the VHS presentation. You could watch the movie on YouTube but it would be a second or third generation copy from the VHS and that’s hardly worth the effort. It’s not exactly clear why the film has been in limbo for the past 35 years,  but it was definitely worth waiting for, the film is as good as I remembered and there are some things about it that are actually much better than my memory on allowed me to recall.

Those of you who are unfamiliar, this is the story of a boy and his rat. Bruce Davison plays the young Willard Stiles, a put upon accountant in a firm that his father created. After his father’s death  death, the company was taken over by his business partner an unfriendly guy named Martin played by Academy Award winning actor Ernest Borgnine. Willard has a lot in common with Norman Bates. He’s relatively quiet, very smart, and socially awkward. He desperately needs a girlfriend. He also has substantial mother issues like Mr. Bates. In this case though,Willard’s mother is actually alive at the start of the story. She is played by veteran actress Elsa Lanchester, who most of you would be familiar with as the bride of Frankenstein. This was one of her last film roles. Willard has no friends of his own, he basically gets by with the friends of his mother. They are overbearing, elderly and full of advice that he doesn’t want. They all think that, he needs to be more in. assertive. Basically, their birthday wish for him is that he be less of a wimp. Davidson is a thin, pale man with doe eyes. In that regard is is different than Norman Bates, who was dark and had those deep set, dark circled eyes. Each of them of course have difficulty with their mothers, and in relating to the opposite sex. Willard is much less dysfunctional than Norman was. he ia a  withdrawn 27 year old man, and he spends a substantial amount of time in the garden. It is there that he begins to interact with some rats that are overtaking the ancient house that he had his mother occupy. Somehow, he manages to begin training, the rats, so that they can recognize his commands.

All of this of course requires a good deal of suspension of disbelief., but in a film like this, it works pretty effectively. There are some cute montage type sequences where the rats perform some tricks. They begin to move at his command. Since I haven’t seen the movie for probably 30 years or more. I was surprised about how much of it I remembered. The main story is definitely something that was easy for me to recall. There was only one sequence that I had forgotten but once it started playing out. I had a much more vivid memory of it. This ends up being a revenge story. Willard views Martin as an oppressor who is responsible for his father’s death. A man who stole the company that he rightfully should own. A man who put so much pressure on his family that his mother dies in an unhappy state, leaving a guileless  Willard alone. Of course, he is not quite alone. He has his 2 best friends. Socrates is a white rat that Willard is especially fond of. Socrates is allowed to have special privileges in the house. Ben is a much smarter rat than any of the others.  He constantly finds his way into the house even after Willard has made attempts to keep him out. Willard however cannot stay mad at Ben and he includes him in most of his escapades along with Socrates.

In a sequence that is for the most part, an innocuous revenge moment, something that might qualify as an innocent prank, Willard packs up several of his rats and releases them at his bosses Anniversary Party, a party that he himself was not invited to. Of course there is a major disruption. The rats climb up on to the tables and start eating the food. and the guests all panic, adults squealing like children and climbing onto chairs. Willard’s boss has a plan to take over the house that Willard and his mother occupied. After the death of his mother, Willard discovers that there is a mortgage and back taxes on the property. Martin plans on buying the house from Willard when he can no longer afford to keep the house and then plowing it down and building a large apartment building. It is a beautiful old house but it is also rundown. It looks like it would be difficult for Willard to be able to bring it up to standard. When he receives a notice from the tax assessor that the house is going to be sold for back taxes, he desperately turns to some of his mother’s old friends. People that he is alienated. He seeks financial assistance from them. They scarf and once again give him the advice that he doesn’t want, he should sell the house. That would play into Martins plans and Willard has no intention of doing that. Instead, in desperation, Willard hatched a plan to use the rats to perform a robbery at the house where he knows a substantial sum of cash is being kept. That was the sequence that I hadn’t remembered. Watching the rats gnaw through the bedroom door, where sleeping couple is resting was actually a very creepy moment.

Willard finally gets bold enough to ask the young woman who is been hired as a temp, to join him. for dinner. She played by a young Sandra Locke. She starred in several Clint Eastwood films and was his partner for a decade. She was also an Academy Award nominee the year before this film came out. She has the same large innocent eye and sweet face that Bruce Davison has. Both of them look young and innocent but we know that Willard is a bit disturbed. Behind his facade are some deep seeded anger. The film was shot in Los Angeles in the 1970s. The house that they used for Willard’s home is an actual home that is still there The interiors were not shot on a set but it was the actual interior of the house. The only set built to be part of the house was the basement section. The office that Willard and his partner work at was definitely from the 70s.. There is wood paneling, gold carpet and industrial style furniture and file cabinets. The set design in the film is extravagant. When they are in Willard’s home. One nice touche is a large grand father clock in the entryway that Willard maintains as best he can and it becomes an object that is envied by Martin.

The film is sold as a Horror Story, but for 3/4 of the run of the film it is a sweet drama.about a sad man who is lonely and begins to reach out. to some rats and to an equally quiet girl. However, as the plot develops, Willard becomes more and more desperate. There are in fact, many horror elements in the climax. The film is more creepy than frightening. Although if the thought of rats does disturb you than the film might very well be as frightening as it is promoted to be. The movie is packed with a lot of well known character actors from the 1970s. Including J Pat O’Malley, the aforementioned  Elsa Lanchester. A number of peripheral actors you might even recognize. If you pay attention to the details. The performance of Bruce Davison himself is what that sells this movie. Davidson has continued to have a successful career as a character actor. In fact, he is an Academy Award nominee himself. 4 or 5 years ago. I saw him as one of 16 character actors in a documentary titled. “That guy in that thing”.  Several recognizable faces talk about their experiences as character actors in the Hollywood of the last 30 years. Davidson has work steadily. He even has had 2 or 3 TV series. where he was the star or a featured player. But he never reached the height of stardom that might have been expected of a young actor of his type. Probably because he spent the next 10 years of his career typecast as a weirdo. I saw this film when I was 13 years old of course, it was perfect for a young man of that age. That probably accounts for why I remembered it so well. I believe I also read the source book titled “The Ratman’s notebook, but that part I can’t really remember. I’ve waited a long time to revisit this film. And well modern audiences may find it to be a little slow. I like the way the character develops. I like the performances, and in the end, I kinda like the rats.