It’s always a thrill when those whose work you admire have new projects coming. It’s a chance to experience again the quality that these individuals and/or entities bring to the table. And when they start combining forces, you cross your fingers that the resultant increase will be exponential rather than geometric.

Turns out, we’re all in luck when it comes to the new film “The Black Phone.”

First of all, it’s based on a short story by Joe Hill. Source material: check. Next, the film is directed by Scott Derrickson, from a script he co-wrote with C. Robert Cargill. Filmmakers: check. And the whole thing is brought to you by Jason Blum and the folks at Blumhouse. Production team: check.

Add it all up and you’re looking at a project that appears, at least on paper, to be poised to give you that exponentially expansive quality. That said, movies aren’t just what’s on paper – in the end, the execution has to be there. Is it?

Oh brother, you better believe it.

“The Black Phone” is a marvelous work of throwback horror, a film that blends a ‘70s B-movie vibe with a modern sensibility. That combination results in a wonderfully spooky creepfest, a film that uses elements of the supernatural to evoke scares that remain firmly rooted in reality. It’s rare for a horror movie to pull off “less is more” while also finding moments to go big; this one makes it look easy. It is unsettling, unrelenting … and unforgettable.

Published in Movies
Monday, 23 May 2022 15:09

Yes, all ‘Men’

Good horror movies find ways to scare you. Great horror movies dig into why you’re scared. And the very best horror movies use well-executed scares and the thoughtfully-explored reasons behind them to comment on larger ideas and issues.

Misogyny and its impact are often found front and center in horror movies. From the very beginning, horror has displayed an awareness of the underlying societal struggle of women, though not always in a positive way – many films, particularly early on, exploited and weaponized the perceived cultural shortcomings of women, taking unsavory advantage of the power imbalance. That said, we have seen a more nuanced approach from some genre filmmakers as the years have passed. Not across the board, mind you – there are still plenty of reductive, regressive creators out there – but it’s better now than it was.

That brings me to “Men,” the new film from writer/director Alex Garland. The genre auteur has crafted a stunning and unsettling piece, one that burrows into the misogyny – both external and internal – with which women are too often confronted, all set against a deceptively idyllic backdrop whose bleakness can only be seen (at least at first) lurking in the shadows. Physical shadows, yes … but also shadows of the psyche.

Garland’s propensity for idiosyncratic and intense visuals is in full effect, counterbalancing the pastoral countryside with a lurid sinisterness lurking just beneath the surface. Rich and vivid and visceral, “Men” has a look that matches the conflicted chaos that lies at the heart of its unconventional narrative.

Published in Movies
Monday, 16 May 2022 14:55

‘Firestarter’ a lukewarm remake

Stephen King is having a … well, what exactly? It’s hard to call it a moment when it feels like we’ve been watching a steady stream of adaptations of his work for years now. And you can’t really call it a Renaissance or a comeback, if only because his popularity never really waned in any real way.

Anyway – whatever it is, he sure is having it.

The latest adaptation (or re-adaptation) is “Firestarter,” based on King’s 1980 novel. This new film – directed by Keith Thomas from a screenplay by Scott Teems – is the second cinematic adaptation of the work, following the 1984 version that, among other things, helped catapult young Drew Barrymore into superstardom. With Jason Blum’s Blumhouse productions on board, you might expect a leap forward in quality; they do have a knack for solid horror offerings.

Unfortunately, this new version instead fails to capture the spirit of the source material, leaving the viewer with a film that – ironically – lacks heat. There’s a flatness to the proceedings that undercuts the possibilities inherent to King’s work; parts of the film feel rushed and/or unfinished, with those cohesion-lacking moments impacting the rest of the film.

It’s not a BAD film – I’d argue that it’s better than the 1984 version, though that might be damning it with faint praise – but neither is it a particularly good one. Instead, we get something that feels disposable and unnecessary; if you’re not going to try and do anything new, why bother with a remake at all?

Correction: if you’re not going to try and do anything AT ALL, why bother?

Published in Movies

Movies based on video games have a checkered history at the box office; they have traditionally not been known for their quality. Hollywood continues to struggle to find the secret sauce in converting characters and narratives from one medium to the other.

Movies ABOUT video games are something of a different animal – think “Tron” or “The Last Starfighter” or even “Ready Player One.” These are films that use video games as the foundation for the stories themselves, rather than the IP around which the story is built.

A new film that falls into that latter category is “Choose or Die,” currently streaming on Netflix. Directed by first-timer Toby Meakins from a screenplay by Simon Allen, it’s a horror film whose central conceit revolves around an obscure 1980s video game unearthed by a player hoping to solve it and get their hands on an unclaimed cash prize connected to said solution. But the game is cursed, capable of altering the player’s reality with horrifying results.

If you’re like me, that previous paragraph probably has you intrigued. It’s a compelling conceit for a film. Unfortunately, the execution isn’t quite up to snuff. “Choose or Die” can’t quite hold together, coming apart in the back half after a strong start – the third act in particular falls flat, never managing to give us the level of payoff promised by the film’s solid beginning.

Published in Movies
Monday, 07 March 2022 15:46

Meat-cute – ‘Fresh’

Just like everything else, the internet has fundamentally altered the dating world. With a multitude of dating apps out there, places where you can explore just about whatever romantic niche you’d like, the possibility of discovering someone new is high. But when it comes to making and maintaining a meaningful connection, well … that possibility is considerably lower.

All in all, it can be a real meat market out there, a metaphor taken to a grisly extreme in the new film “Fresh,” currently streaming on Hulu.

Directed by Mimi Cave from a script by Lauryn Kahn, “Fresh” is a dark satire of modern-day dating marked by a bloodily over-the-top premise (that I’m going to try hard not to spoil). It is a visceral and surprising film, one that takes great pleasure in subverting your expectations at multiple turns and punching up at a few worthwhile societal targets. Smart and sharp-witted, it’s a movie that really gives you something you can chew on.

Published in Movies
Monday, 28 February 2022 15:49

A horror day’s night – ‘Studio 666’

Most of the time, when you watch a movie, you can understand how it came to be made. Regardless of your own personal response, you can recognize what you have seen as intended for an audience, even if that audience doesn’t happen to include you.

Most of the time … but not all.

The new film “Studio 666” is a horror movie starring Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters as fictionalized versions of themselves dealing with dark otherworldly forces while trying to ensure that their 10th album kicks an appropriate amount of ass.

I am genuinely baffled by the fact of this movie’s existence.

Directed by BJ McDonnell from a screenplay by Jeff Buhler and Rebecca Hughes (though Grohl gets the story credit), it’s a bizarre exercise, a horror comedy rendered all the more absurd by the band’s … let’s just say varied – performance matched with gleeful practical effects-laden gore. This is a strange and often stupid film that might well leave you with the same question that plagued me throughout the experience:

Exactly who is this movie for?

Published in Movies
Monday, 21 February 2022 16:10

‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ a cut below

It’s an IP world, folks. The cinematic landscape exists largely on a foundation of franchises, of sequels and reboots and the like. Whether we’re talking about the big screen or the small, it doesn’t matter. Sure, there are still original ideas out there, but while familiarity breeds contempt, it also breeds profit, so … here we are.

But there’s more than one way to skin a sequel.

So it is with “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” the latest iteration of the grisly grindcore horror franchise; this entry marks the ninth TCM film. This Netflix offering takes its cue from another recently revisited series – “Halloween” – in that it is a direct sequel to the 1974 original only, ignoring the many sequels since and essentially opting to erase them from canon.

Unfortunately, the decision to wipe the slate clean doesn’t have a ton of impact. Instead, we get a film that feels surprisingly generic, a ho-hum slasher film that doesn’t have anything like the impact of the original. Sure, there’s some gore and a couple of intense scenes, but even with some ham-fisted efforts to loop in some bits of social and cultural commentary, it ultimately falls flat.

Published in Movies
Monday, 24 January 2022 16:11

Full ‘Scream’ ahead

Most creative work tends to be in conversation with the work that preceded it. That’s as true of filmmaking as any other artistic endeavor – true paradigm shifts independent of previous creation are exceedingly rare.

But even in that realm, horror filmmaking stands a step above. The whole genre is constructed around self-reflection, with today’s films drawing from those that came before – both figuratively and (more and more often) literally.

That said, no horror franchise has so thoroughly ventured into the meta realm as “Scream.” From the very first entry back in 1996, the series has made its bones by investing fully in its own self-referential nature.

And Ghostface is back.

The latest installment – also titled “Scream” – marks the fifth film in the franchise. Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, two members of the creative collective Radio Silence, from a script by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, it’s very much a continuation of the core ethos of the series; namely, the idea that the conventions of horror cinema are very much a part of the horror being played out in this particular story. The self-awareness that makes these movies so appealing is still very present.

It’s also a good bit, well … stabbier than you might anticipate. While the metahumor is still very much in play, there’s a fair amount of gore at play here. It gets bloody in ways that you might not expect from these films, but it still works; the film finds ways to stay in conversation with itself even as it digs into the conceptual and/or visceral shifts in modern horror.

Published in Movies

For many people, just the term “Black Friday” is enough to give them the shivers. Whether they’re put-upon retail workers thrust into the breach or the exhausted shoppers single-mindedly devoted to doorbusters and deals, hearing those words together makes them break out into a cold sweat.

Now imagine that, only with alien zombie monsters.

That’s the gist of “Black Friday,” a new horror comedy written by Andy Grekoviak and directed by Casey Tebo. It’s the story of a motley crew of retail workers at a big-box toy store who must face down a mysterious alien menace that transforms all who come into contact with it into monstrous zombie-like creatures. With little to defend themselves but their own wits (such as they are), the group is forced to confront these monsters while also dealing with their own dysfunctional dynamic.

Gleefully gross with over-the-top practical effects, the film is a goofy, blood-spattered romp through a world where not even the approaching end of the world is enough to shift priorities away from the accumulation of profit. Well, not immediately anyway.

Published in Movies
Monday, 01 November 2021 14:50

About ‘Last Night in Soho’

Few active filmmakers are possessed of a style and sensibility that is specifically theirs. These filmmakers stamp their idiosyncratic signatures on their works in an undeniable manner; theirs are the movies that we watch and know instantly who made them. The Andersons – both Wes and Paul Thomas – are in that category, for instance. So too are the Coen brothers.

And Edgar Wright is definitely in that conversation.

The English auteur’s latest film is “Last Night in Soho,” a time travel horror thriller of sorts that is packed with the sort of vivid imagery and pop deep cuts in which he delights. We move back and forth between the present day and a neon-soaked ‘60s London, the color and lights serving only to deepen the shadows of a story whose details are ever-shifting.

Wright has never been one to flee from his influences; he’s unafraid to embrace and celebrate the pop culture sights, sounds and ideas that he loves. That said, “Last Night in Soho” – while undeniably and instantly identified as an Edgar Wright movie – might be the least overtly engaged in conversation with those influences. They’re there, but we’re much farther from the homage/pastiche vibe of, say, his Cornetto Trilogy.

It’s stylish. It’s creepy. And it’s very good.

Published in Movies
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