Sunday, 3 July 2022

The Black Phone

The Black Phone

Director – Scott Derrickson

Writers – Joe Hill (based on the short story 'The Black Phone' by), Scott Derrickson (screenplay by), C. Robert Cargill (screenplay by)

2021, USA

Stars – Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Ethan Hawke

 

Adapted from Joe Hill’s short story: Hill is, like his dad, a writer that offers lots of enjoyment from horror tropes. There’s enough edge followed up with neat resolution to make the genre a safe space to exorcise anxieties: red meat with just desserts. It’s comfort food horror. Having established a Seventies context – allowing for mention of ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and use of the Scratchy Retro-Film flashback filter – ‘The Black Phone’ sets up a memorable child abductor in which Ethan Hawke’s performance finds many creepy sleazy and unnerving corners mostly through line readings as his face is obscured by The Grabber’s mask (designed by Tom Savini and co., horror fans!).

 

Abducted and stored in a basement that’s empty but for a disconnected black phone on the wall, young Finney (Mason Thames) finds that The Grabber will procrastinate long enough for ghosts of his other child victims to call on it with semi-vague advice on survival. Having set up the unsettling threat of The Grabber, the script has the ghosts talk with annoying allusiveness so that the runtime isn’t too short, and once the tacky ghosts appear, it becomes clear that the supernatural half is almost ‘Goosebumps’ level (the supernatural is the bond that kids have to overcome the violence of adults). And that’s fine, but there’s a lack of balance here; the slightly drained indie-vibe perhaps promises a grimness, or at something like ‘The Boy Behind the Door’, but that’s not fully the case. The unscary supernatural element is nowhere near as unsettling as the violence and brutality of the bullying or the abuse at home. It’s the same with the popular ‘It: part 2’ where a nasty homophobic attack opens proceedings and casts doubt on the fearsomeness of the fantasy threats). ‘The Black Phone’ film also seems a little coy about what The Grabber does, although there are plenty of hints at the unspeakable. The recent ‘Scary Stories to tell in the Dark’ had the balance right – nastiness for young folk, but a lightness of touch – and then there’s the more recent example ‘Summer of ‘84’ proves itself to be playing a far darker game and isn’t comfort food at all.



‘The Black Phone’ isn’t quite bolstered up so much so that you don’t note the plot holes as you are watching. Wasn’t he going to see his pal after school? But then again, the timescale is unclear overall. He’s abducted but The Grabber doesn’t come down too much and certainly doesn’t see all the digging and other attempts to escape, which you think he might since the previous captives also tried. And if we go with that, surely, he would have seen the freezer damage (again, the timescale is unclear so maybe The Grabber wasn’t due to visit the freezer)? And I am not convinced the police would come out in force based on her call. Hell, if you’re going to strip the basement, why leave a broken phone on the wall at all? All this to say that ‘The Black Phone’ is as frustrating in its plot holes as it is enjoyable in its play with tropes. Or, as George Elkind writes, “Its best moments far outstrip its worst ones, though, resulting in a work that feels at once fussily prepared and a bit undercooked, with artistic attention and running time too often feeling misspent.”

 

It’s a coming-of-age film where the kid gets the respect and awe his peers and of those that bullied him and he gets the girl. All he has to do to gain his masculine credentials is to abducted by a murderous sleazeball and turn his back on his natural aversion to extreme violence to survive. He’ll even get a couple of one-liners: “It’s for you!” and “Call me Finn.”



It has an agreeable indie-vibe and Derrickson seems sincere. Mostly, the film’s strength is the performances of Thames, Hawke and Medeline McGraw – the latter as Finney’s sister Gwen having an existential crisis when her supernatural visions are, like the ghosts, giving her clues that tend to abstractions. Hawke’s vocal performance and the two-part mask nicely convey a fractured psyche. Thames conveys Finney’s intelligence and fortitude even as he is sometimes paralysed in the face of violence, so that when he just becomes a conventional precocious kick-ass, it’s arguably a betrayal of a more complex character.

Tuesday, 21 June 2022

Men


Men

Writer & Director – Alex Garland

2022, UK

Stars – Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu

 


 

(You should not read this if you haven’t seen the film.)

 

The first thing noted is the issue of a man writing with this focus on the female experience of misogyny. A theme of Garland’s ‘Ex Machina’ was male objectification of a woman and the object turning the tables, so there’s precedent for this writer-director’s interest in gender issues. In the pro camp, ‘Men’ is a good film that carries its premise to the end, where its symbolism, eccentricities and outrageousness have meaning. In the con camp, he’s taking up valuable space that should be taken by women filmmakers; does he have the right? So Garland’s privilege as male filmmaker goes to mitigate ‘Men’s status as a successful provocation on behalf of female issues.

 

Attending horror film festivals, I have noted a welcome and inventive rise in films that centre unapologetically on the female experience: Bea Grant is one to watch (‘12 Hour Shift’, and especially ‘Lucky’), and Emerald Fennel’s ‘Promising Young Woman’, Natalie Erika Jones’ ‘Relic’, and of course Julia Ducournau’s ‘Raw’ and Emerald Fennel’s ‘Promising Young Woman’; and I was also mildy entertained but not convinced by Coralie Fargeat’s ‘Revenge’. So these voices are out there, but underheard and not quite in the mainstream. (I’m thinking of Kitty Green’s ‘The Assistant’ too.)

 

But it seems that even detractors are inclined to credit the atmosphere and the aesthetic of ‘Men’. The set piece where Harper’s (Jessie Buckley) innocuous walk the woods gets creepier and creepier, where she seemingly summons something when singing down a tunnel, is just one early highpoint. And then there’s the excellent performances of Rory Kinear, covering a wide spectrum of men. Kinear steps one step back from the caricature – broad but subtle – so the point about male modes doesn’t stumble into reductive stereotypes. It’s all coached in a near fairy-tale aesthetic (forbidden fruit and all that; but dandelion blowing verges on the trite), turning a small corner of an English village into an area where reality can’t be trusted.

 


This is the tale of a woman who thinks she is coping with the traumatic end to an abusive relationship, but when she gets away to a country cottage as a part of her recovery, the memory of her partner influences and infects every male she meets (men: they’re all the same). This memory makes all her interactions with men increasingly toxic and violent, culminating in excessive body-horror. It’s all there in the tagline: “What haunts you will find you.” If the outré ending baffles those that aren’t used to the language of genre extremes – ‘The Thing’, ‘Society’, ‘The Special’, early Cronenberg – it is a provocative body-horror metaphor of regurgitating/rebirthing misogyny across the ages and types of masculinity. It’s the kind of WTF moment that amuses the hell out of my inner horror fan, visceral and cathartic, unsettling, brutal. (I went in with no idea of where it would be going, or exactly what it would be intending, and I credit the trailer for being that rare example of fuelling my curiosity whilst keeping the mystery. Hence, I was fully and pleasingly surprised.)

But what I liked, in the middle of the rebirthing set-piece, is how Harper eventually just looked and walked away, as if to say, “I have no time for your showing-off, guy.” All the way through, it’s evident that she is no fool for the passive-aggressive abuse of men. She wastes no time in rejecting it or calling it out, even if she got herself into a bad situation in the first place. Nevertheless, this whole fantasia reveals that she isn’t coping as well as she thinks, and Harper is ultimately left on the sofa with the aggressive haunting of her ex-boyfriend asking if he she still loves him, after everything. It’s a tale of working through trauma.

 


It is then arguably not so much that Garland is stepping on the toes of the experience of female artists, but that he is using his platform to criticise his own gender. ‘Men’ doesn’t stop the film to explain, as does the otherwise wonderful ‘Get Out’, but neither is it as ambiguous as some credit it. Yet, for all its conclusive meaning, ‘Men’ echoed in me the broader satisfaction with confronting gender issues that I got from ‘The Special’, rather than the troubling aftertaste of sorrow from Bea Grant’s ‘Lucky’ or ‘Promising Young Female’, or even ‘The Beta Test’. As ‘The Special’ and ‘The Beta Test’ are evidently critical of the misogyny from male artists, from the inside as it were, these are surely more appropriate peers. And I count ‘Ex machina’ in this camp too. The difference is that ‘Men’ has a female avatar. That is to say that for all its dreamy veneer of trickery and profundity, it works best as a slow-burn visceral portrayal of one woman’s trauma, and in that sense it’s more akin to the broad end of b-movie expressions of the genre. And that can possess a cathartic and horror-hilarious quality that succeeds where other genres can’t. 


Sunday, 12 June 2022

So Long, My Son


So Long, My Son

Di jiu tianchang -  地久天

Director – Xiaoshuai Wang

Writers – Mei Ah, Xiaoshuai Wang

2019, China

Stars – Jingchun Wang, Mei Yong, Xi Qi


A Chinese epic covering the history of two of families and especially the lifelong effect on their friendship and repercussions of the “one child” policy that lasted from 1979 to 2015. Chronicling both domestic and political contexts, its narrative requires patience and attention as it is non-linear, flip-flopping across decades. This elucidates life as a mosaic of incidents and drama, where the past, present and future are concomitant, always making away for and crashing into one another. It is also a challenge in that the audience must wait for clarification on details. The jigsaw structure means it engages like a mystery.


The shot framing is often exquisite, often being visually beautiful and busy. The locales look/are convincing lived-in, the minutiae of life cluttering up and almost overwhelming. Like the film in total, the nuances of performances, especially by the exceptional Wang Jingchun & Yong Mei, gather increasing weight as details and suppressed emotion accumulate, as understanding of their characters is layered. Inevitably, when spanning many characters over a long period and with such a complex, diced narrative, there are lacunas – Moli’s motivation is a little vague, for example – and maybe appearing a little cumbersomeness, but once the viewer gets into the flow, the temporal changes and cues reveal themselves as deftly handled.

It is also a film that centres on the political contexts that define domestic lives: here, it's the Chinese one-child policy, the post-1978 era of Reform and Opening-up, work life, etc., with a focus is on how one affects the other. It’s awareness and presentation of the micro and the macro is astute and relatable and establishes ‘So Long My Son’s place as an essential, humanist, melancholy social epic.

The three-hour length reaps tremendous rewards in that, come the end, the audience is no doubt craving for reconciliation. Antecedents like Edward Yang’s domestic epics are obvious, demanding patience and attention to detail until investment in the characters has gone deeper than the viewer perhaps realised (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s ‘Drive my Car’ being another recently). Personally, I was surprised to find myself aggressively wishing for a sympathetic resolution – and it comes not as wish-fulfilment “happy ending”, but just the tide of life. It’s deeply moving.

Tuesday, 24 May 2022

Midnight Mass


Midnight Mass

2021, TV mini-series

Creator – Mike Flanagan

Stars - Kate Siegel, Zach Gilford, Kristin Lehman

 

 

Flanagan’s characteristic slow build and grasp of character reaps rewards, and is always punctuated by memorable horror set-piece or images: glowing eyes in the bushes (look closely); dead cats washed up on the beach, etc. The impending horror is at first hinted at in throwaway comments and then sealed in uncanny and disturbing incidents like a disappearing pregnancy. And then, when things are settled, a surprise is thrown in and things really get going…


 

It’s a wordy piece, very concerned with existential questions – guilt, responsibility, repentance, existence, mortality, death, etc. Second Chances are a major theme, with the limits of the island manifesting those of the characters. But it’s also very good at the passive-aggressive and manipulative rhetoric of religion: in this case, used to invite and justify the monstrous/vampirism. Dracula seduced his victims with promises of longevity and anti-Victorian liberation, warded off by Christianity’s piety and symbolism; but Flanagan’s piece here suggests that Bible prose isn’t any protection at all and in fact can be used to fit any personal agenda, even tailoring it to vampire lore. When scientific explanation is also thrown in, the story has all bases pleasingly covered. The tale of one man's Faith being endorsed with an encounter with a vampire is the pleasing, playful, subversive stuff of horror, however po-faced the aesthetic (and that's a fine vampire). And there's all the stuff equating religion with a plague.


But this talkiness becomes an issue in the last chapter, when action and character agency gives way to monologues and speechifying. Proceedings still slow for philosophical and existential discussions even though the show has covered this at length in the build-up. In light of what is happening and has gone before, the show seemingly making a last-minute reach for God feels more like a platitude given what the show has proven.

 


It makes sense that the characters plunge into a hymn, but by this moment the show has leaned towards sentimentality and undermines the horror that has been so carefully arranged and earned (this was the same failing with Flanigan’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’, only more destructively there). And it’s true that the burning up of vampires is more poetic and romanticed here. Let’s leave aside that I am not wholly unconvinced, given they have a whole island, that there wouldn’t be some way that some of them could have hidden from sunlight, that there wouldn’t at least be protective shade.

 

Nevertheless, the slow build features lots of memorable horror exclamation marks and Hamish Linklater’s performance as Father Paul is a wonderful, riveting and nuanced anchor*. Samantha Sloyan’s turn as Bev Keane is also delicious as the kind of Stephen King God-bothering fanatic you can love love love to hate. As a contemporary ‘Salem’s Lot’ (and to be honest, what could replicate the effect that had on me as a thirteen-year-old?), it holds its head up high. ‘Midnight Mass’ continues Flanagan’s run of mature, character-based horror that knows how to deliver its genre ingredients with both deliberation and full-blooded relish.


 

  • For which Hamish Linklater won both Critics Choice Super Awards’ “Best Actor in a Horror Series” and IGN Summer Movie Awards’ “Best Dramatic TV Performance”.

Monday, 16 May 2022

The Northman

 

The Northman

Director – Robert Eggers

Writers – Sjón, Robert Eggers

2022, United States

Stars – Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang

 

Alexander Skarsgård’s long-term desire to make a Viking film definitely hit the target with Robert Eggers, a director renowned and celebrated for his attention to verisimilitude and detail. Eggers calls says, “this is in some respects me trying to do Conan the Barbarian by way of Andrei Rublev”, a description that perfectly captures the twin poles from which it works: rip-roaring blood-and-guts machismo and downbeat adherence to period pseudo-realism. One minute, characters are primally impersonating roaring rampaging beasts, the next we are shored on the pixie-witch beauty of Björk, or the sharp and stony beauty of Anna Taylor-Joy.

 

This tone also makes it a bit of a mainstream outlier: ‘Conan’ had pseudo-seriousness and fantasy fun, and ‘Andrei Rublev’ had existential humourlessness and sublime artiness; but ‘The Northman’ falls somewhere in-between, so that one moment you’re enjoying the Defoe cameo and ‘let’s be a dog’ rituals, and the next you are stunned by a brutal one-shot village massacre which can’t help but remind of the similar unbearable sequence in ‘Come and See’. It’s a big-budget gung-ho action-art film with solemn interests. It is perhaps the same feel that puts off punters from Denis Villeneuve.

 

Starting with a growled narration that would put ‘The Batman’ to shame, ‘The Northman’ offers up an everything-all-at-once splash, like a fevered painting of a historical battle, anchored by the same source that inspired Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’. If ‘The Witch’ and ‘The Lighthouse’ showed what Eggers could do on low budgets, this Viking epic sees him glorying in and using this budget for all it’s worth, as if he knows that he many never get such a chance again. It focuses on the beefed-up, primal wounded animal performance from Skarsgård as Amleth, frightening as a Beserker. His adored father, the King (Ethan Hawke), murdered by his uncle, who then marries his mother. All but orphaned, Amleth loses himself in Beserker rages, which we see in a stunning tracking shot of a terrifying Viking raid on an unsuspecting Slavic town. He is then reminded by casual post-pillaging gossip and a Björk vision of his vow to avenge his father. The ever-popular revenge narrative goes full-ahead, peppered with a little magic-realism and fantasy portentousness and ending up at the edge of a volcano.



But there is no deep slavish dedication to machismo here: the violence may start as exhilarating camerawork, but it’s horror. Amleth’s mission of vengeance brings nothing but ugly truths and betrayals, plunging towards that showdown by magma that doesn’t truly possess the catharsis that revenge is meant to bring.

 

Perhaps this dour, existentialist tone is why David Stratton calls it “surprisingly dreary”? Filmspotting feels the need to ask, “does the director’s new Viking revenge epic add up to anything but a bloody good time?” So which is it: drearily reflective or rip-roaring mindlessness? That Eggers delivers the pleasures from both ends without losing balance is ‘The Northman’s overall artistic success. Fun, furious fantasy and packed with a seriousness approach to theme and detail that will reward multiple watches. It’s epic, pretty, a bit crazy, a bit lost in its own detail and excess.


Saturday, 7 May 2022

Playground - Un Monde


Playground

Un monde

 

Director – Laura Wandel

Writer – Laura Wandel

2021, Belgium

Stars – Maya Vanderbeque, Günter Duret, Lena Girard Voss

 

Laura Wandal’s camera is only really interested in the faces and reactions of our two young protagonists and never strays, only occasionally taking in the faces of others. We first meet sister and brother Nora and Abel in a fraught embrace as this is Nora’s first day at the school and she’s very nervous. And that’s the poster.

 

What follows is a back-and-forth, up-and-down rotations of the bullying that comes between the siblings that comes to define their lives as they try to negotiate their place in this world. Watching Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) build in confidence and find friends is warming, but that too comes with pitfalls and snidey remarks – more bullying.  It’s a short film and just as anxiety-inducing and gruelling as ‘Uncut Gems’, but without the fun. It’s spare, direct and acutely focused even as it is loose enough to allow the naturalism and, therefore, vulnerability of the young actors to reach through to audience empathy.

 

And it is even more enraging for the recognisable truths it portrays, a clear-eyed portrayal of playground and classroom politics for anyone that’s been the recipient. Its protagonists are just youngsters trying to survive in a world of cruelty, whether that’s outright physical violence or micro-aggressions. The adults are mostly helpless in this battlefield. Indeed, one vivid moment is when a beloved teacher admits that sometimes adults don’t know what to do. There are no solutions here, because there aren’t, but the representation goes straight to Roger Ebert’s statement that cinema is an empathy machine. A kind of 'Eighth Grade' where consolation is hard to come by. It’s the kind of social minefield that will lead to adult contexts such as ‘The Assistant’.

 

James Lattimer* feels that the naturalism and the story are not fully reconciled – the contrivances of aesthetic and narrative – and attributes this to being a debut feature. But most doubts are likely to be overwhelmed by the visceral reaction the film provokes. It’s a little heartbreaker which portrays the kind of difficulties of socialising that any sensitive person will recognise.    

 

·       * James Lattimer ‘Playground’ review, ‘Sight & Sound’ May 2022. Vol. 32 issue 4, pg 78

The Devil Commands

 

The Devil Commands

Director - Edward Dmytryk

Writers – Robert Hardy Andrews (screenplay), Milton Gunzburg(screenplay), William Sloane(novel "The Edge of Running Water")

1941, USA

Stars –  Boris Karloff, Anne Revere, Amanda Duff

 

Perhaps you can’t go wrong with a black-and-white shot of a “haunted” house in a storm with a portentous opening narration, but the mood is immediately set to maximum Gothic pleasure.  It’s the kind with the feel of ‘Rebecca’, and as with all good Gothics, the storms happen at the correct moments.

Slightly mixed-up from William Sloane’s novel ‘The Edge of Running Water’, this has some nice black-and-white imagery – the séance of corpses in diving suits is quite unforgettable – and some hilarious science-y stuff with equally madcap/entertaining experiments and equipment as a main source of enjoyment. And, of course, Karloff’s central performance to ground it all. In fact, all the older actors give their thin roles more colour than perhaps warranted; and although Karloff rules, it’s Anne Revere that steals the show as the mercenary sham medium.

The mash-up of science and supernatural, but without the influence of religion (the title means nothing), is notable and promising, but although there’s the sense that the execution is all a step above the script, it never really delves deep into this mad doc’s delusion and what he might be touching on. But it’s short and entertaining in an old-school gothic-horror manner.


Tuesday, 19 April 2022

Woodland Grey

 


Woodland Grey

Director – Adam Reider

Writers – Adam Reider, Jesse Toufexis

2021, Canada

Stars – Jenny Raven, Ryan Blakely, Art Hindle

 

 At Grimmfest Easter.


Deep in the woods, an isolated man stumbles across an annoying woman (she can’t even say “Sorry!” without being aggravating) who wakes to discover that she has wondered into a horror scenario. The girl locked in the shed is the least of it.

 

About halfway in, William (Ryan Blakely, nicely unhinged and distressed) starts to say things that make the whole story open up – things like how he wasn’t even sure if she was real; or how he doesn’t even know how to lay traps. This mystery is the most gripping stuff, as the interaction and dialogue of this partnership gets increasingly interesting, even as it feels the need for flashbacks. The pace and tone may be inconsistent at times, and it may be too inconclusive for some (think Koko-Di, Koko-Da’) but the aim for a kind of folk horror about grieving and being trapped in the inexplicable wins through.


Ego

Ego

Director – Alfonso Cortés-Cavanillas

Writer – Jorge Navarro de Lemus

2021, Spain

Stars – María Pedraza, Alicia Borrachero, Pol Monen

 


At Grimmfest Easter. 


19-year-old Paloma is suck in Madrid lockdown and still getting over her breakdown. However, she seems a typical brattish young woman until she seems to be victim of identity theft by a doppelgänger.

 

Unless we don’t get the point, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” is a constant motif, but it’s soon apparent that beneath Paloma’s bullish exterior, there is a troubled soul. María Pedraza’s remarkable performance only gets more involving and devastating as Paloma feels that her identity, her reality is being threatened. By herself. And no one will believe her. A supernatural peril or a portrait of increasing mental instability, the film carefully maintains ambiguity – ‘Repulsion’ is an obvious comparison, but there are moments when it verges on ‘Insidious’ style scares – and it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that, as Paloma gets into more of a state, you suddenly realise that you are likely just as unnerved for no good reason – which is exactly her plight and distress.

 

Not only a horror incorporating the digital world but also a bona fide lockdown drama using the horror genre to empathise with the mental health crisis running alongside as a direct result of the pandemic years. Some may begrudge that there is no big showdown, but the film ends with something more insidious and heart-breaking. And the final symbolism implies this is just one of many.


Monday, 18 April 2022

The Family


The Family

Director – Dan Slater

Writers – Adam Booth, Dan Slater

Stars – Nigel Bennett, Toni Ellwand, Keana Lyn

2021, Canada

 

At Grimmfest Easter.


Starts as it means to go on with a scene of humiliation and abuse justified by religious pontificating. An aging couple reign over a group of young adults/children with a merciless rule of Etan (although it wasn’t clear to me what the “children” are toiling over).

 

It’s atmospheric rather than a mood piece, and therefore it has a story that needs to be served but always seems on the verge. There’s slow burn and then there’s reverting to cycles of humiliation, abuse and religious beratements when the point has long been made and we’ve long since worked out the clues that have been laid. When every scene is about breaking the spirits of the characters without another point being made, it becomes misery porn.

 

The joylessmess of oppressive religion is a given, but there is nothing here but a climate of abuse. There’s a committed cast, there's smart direction (even if it is too long),  drained but crisp cinematography and oodles of pseudo-religious speak, but without nuance it registers as one note. 

 

But one thought, watching this on the back of ‘A Pure Place’ and ‘Ghosts of Ozarks’, is that stories about manufactured faith and unhinged cults sure seems to be a trend when, horror being a pretty good barometer of societal concerns, we live in times when the cult of celebrity and Fake News dominates politics.

Ghosts of the Ozarks

Ghosts of the Ozarks

Directors – Matt Glass, Jordan Wayne Long

Writers – Sean Anthony Davis, Jordan Wayne Long, Tara Perry

2021, USA

Stars – Thomas Hobson, Phil Morris, Tara Perry

 

1866, and a young black doctor (yes, there were a handful it seems) is invited by his uncle to practice in a walled off community in the Ozarks. The walls keep out the ghosts in the trees and red mist that kill and terrorise the townsfolk.

 

An odd offering as its seems both overcooked and underdone: overcooked in that, for example, the musical cues are often too on-the-nose, intrusively so; and underdone in that for all its elements, it never quite seems to gel. It’s obviously admirably developed by a small group, in that many cast and crew had multiple jobs; and its ambition isn’t in question, alluding to themes of slavery, social safety and purpose, but also corruption and power, etc. (It steps on many similar notes to Grimmfest’s ‘A Pure Place’). But all the allowances for the rough edges can’t quite make up for laziness in writing: for example, where our main protagonist just seems to wander into the red mist a number of times. Or the moments where the soundtrack goes country-twee. Or simply that, despite a vivid location and interesting premise, intriguing characters and decent performances, there is just something in the telling that lacks a magic ingredient.